Category Archives: University rankings

Schools, Research, Relevance

The following was sent to the Moodle Lounge.

Business schools and research | Practically irrelevant? | Economist.com

My own reaction to this piece…
Well, well…
The title and the tone are, IMHO, rather inflammatory. For those who follow tech news, this could sound like a column by John C. Dvorak. The goal is probably to spark conversation about the goals of business schools. Only a cynic (rarely found in academia 😛 ) would say that they’re trying to increase readership. 😎

The article does raise important issues, although many of those have been tackled in the past. For instance, the tendency for educational institutions to look at the short-term gains of their “employees’ work” for their own programs instead of looking at the broader picture in terms of social and human gains. Simple rankings decreasing the diversity of programmes. Professors who care more about their careers than about their impact on the world. The search for “metrics” in scholarship (citation impact, patents-count, practical impact…). The quest for prestige. Reluctance to change. Etc.

This point could lead to something interesting:

AACSB justifies its stance by saying that it wants schools and faculty to play to their strengths, whether they be in pedagogy, in the research of practical applications, or in scholarly endeavour.

IMHO, it seems to lead to a view of educational institutions which does favour diversity. We need some schools which are really good at basic research. We need other schools (or other people at the same schools) to be really good ast creating learning environments. And some people should be able to do the typical goal-oriented “R&D” for very practical purposes, with business partners in mind. It takes all kinds. And because some people forget the necessity for diverse environments, it’s an important point to reassess.
The problem is, though, that the knee-jerk reaction apparently runs counter to the “diversity” argument. Possibly because of the AACSB’s own recommendations or maybe because of a difference of opinion, academics (and the anonymous Economist journalist) seem to understand the AACSB’s stance as meaning that all programs should be evaluated with the exact same criteria which give less room for basic research. Similar things have been done in the past and, AFAICT, basic research eventually makes a comeback, one way or the other. A move toward “practical outcomes” is often a stopgap measure in a “bearish” context.

To jump on the soapbox for a second. I personally do think that there should be more variety in academic careers, including in business schools. Those who do undertake basic research are as important as the others. But it might be ill-advised to require every faculty member at every school to have an impressive research résumé every single year. Those people whose “calling” it is to actually teach should have some space and should probably not be judged using the same criteria as those who perceive teaching as an obstacle in their research careers. This is not to say that teachers should do no research. But it does mean that requiring proof of excellence in research of everyone involved is a very efficient way to get both shoddy research and dispassionate teaching. In terms of practical implications for the world outside the Ivory Tower, often subsumed under the category of “Service,” there are more elements which should “count” than direct gain from a given project with a powerful business partner. (After all, there is more volatility in this context than in most academic endeavours.) IMHO, some people are doing more for their institutions by going “in the world” and getting people interested in learning than by working for a private sponsor. Not that private sponsors are unimportant. But one strength of academic institutions is that they can be neutral enough to withstand changes in the “market.”

Phew! 😉

Couldn’t help but notice that the article opens the door for qualitative and inductive research. Given the current trend in and toward ethnography, this kind of attitude could make it easier to “sell” ethnography to businesses.
What made me laugh in a discussion of video-based ethnographic observation is that they keep contrasting “ethnography” (at least, the method they use at EverydayLives) with “research.” 😀

The advantage of this distinction, though, in the context of this Economist piece, is that marketeers and other business-minded people might then see ethnography as an alternative for what is perceived as “practically irrelevant” research. 💡

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Students≠Products

Ranking systems for universities and colleges are a rich topic for discussion, especially in the United States. Read my previous blog posts on the subject here and here for my pretty non-radical take.

For an illuminating approach to the topic, from a very adept source

Tenured Radical: Who’s On First? College Ranking Systems

Ranking and assessment assume that a college or a university is good when it can promise, in four years, to turn out a student who is a certain kind of well-functioning product. But students are not products: they are people who are evolving into citizens, workers and neighbors. Thus, students and their parents should not be comparing schools to each other. The correct comparison is to match up what the school offers with what the student herself thinks she wants. (Emphasis mine)

Despite the U.S.-centric perspective, this is one of the most blogworthy statements one could make about the disconnect between rankings and learning.


Higher Education in a New Era

Thanks to a comment by Jay, a series of edifying articles in Washington Monthly about the current state of U.S. higher education, appearing in the September 2006 issue of that magazine.

I do tend to disagree with several dimensions of the approach taken by Washington Monthly, including the apparent enthusiasm for the “client-based approach to higher education” favoured by several institutions and bemoaned by its main actors. But I do appreciate the fact that such a conversation finally takes place. The blog post which prompted Jay’s comment was about Canadian universities but “don’t get me started” about the state of higher education in the United States.

According to its mission statement, Washington Monthly seeks to provide insight on politics and government in (the United States of) America. As such, it focuses on the potential ramifications of higher education for governmental (mostly U.S. federal) politics. Doing so, it seems to obey at least some of the Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions, especially with regards to section A on Purposes and Goals of Rankings. (PDF version of principles.)

One thing that these articles avoids is blaming students for most of the problems. In my experience, today’s higher education students usually display impressive potential but are often inadequately prepared for college and university life. The fault might be put on “The System,” the parents, the diverse schools, or the governments. It’s quite unlikely that today’s students are inherently flawed as compared to previous generations and I’m frequently impressed by students of any age, social background, or local origin.

An article from the January/February 2002 issue of Washington Monthly also provides some insight in the financial dimension of higher education in the United States. The situation might have changed in the last four years, though it sounds somewhat unlikely that it may have greatly improved.

This coverage might be too journalistic and U.S.-specific but these are, IMHO, important pieces of the full puzzle of higher education in an interconnected world. These articles should contribute to a larger conversation on education. That conversation may also involve issues discussed in Daniel Golden’s Price of Admission book (as explained on the Colbert Report). Radio Open Source has also been broadcasting (and podcasting) shows on university leadership, academia, and education requirements, among several relevant topics.

It would be important to connect these issues with the broader scene of higher education around the world. Even in the cosmopolitan world of academia, not enough people get the benefit of experiencing more than a single educational system and a very small proportion of people gets to experience more than two. It is common for anthropologists to talk about “taking a step back” and “looking at the forest for the trees.” Higher education is no place for mental near-sightedness.

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McGill and UofT Ranked

Speaking of university rankings, McGill University describes its presence in the Princeton Review as praise. Their actual rankings in distinct categories are [drumroll, please…]:

The first category (rare class discussions) is surprising to me because, in my experience (taught at two universities in Quebec, two in Indiana, two in Massachusetts, and one in New Brunswick), university students in Quebec tend to discuss quite openly in class, much more so than U.S. students. But these rankings are based on perception, not analysis of classroom behaviour, AFAIK. And McGill has a high proportion of students from the United States.

In my mind, Concordia University would be likely to rank higher in “race/class interaction” as it’s a well-known part of people’s experience there (faculty, students, and administrators frequently discuss diversity issues). And since Concordia’s campus is quite close to McGill’s, it’s quite possible that Concordia would rank close to McGill for the “college town” category. Although, McGill students tend to live close to campus (including in the so-called McGill Ghetto) while Concordia students are scattered across town. Still, Montreal is considered a cool “college town” by people who attend all of its four universities.

The other Canadian university in the Princeton Review rankings is University of Toronto, which is similarly “praised“:

Hmmm… Where’s the UofT press release about its consecration by The Princeton Review? Can’t wait to see how they spin it. “At UofT, we pride ourselves for our groundbreaking approach to teaching. Students are encouraged to work by themselves, without the hassles of communicating with their professors or with their fellow students.”

Of course, those rankings aren’t based on stereotypes or frivolous factors. After all, which serious ranking wouldn’t have a category for “Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarians?” Maybe rankings made by “Dr. Martens-Wearing, Tree-Cutting, Non-Smoking Omnivores.”
It’s quite difficult to compare Canadian universities with those in the U.S. because the systems are quite different from one another. For instance, tuition fees at (publicly-funded but private university) McGill are quite low ($1,668 for “Out-of-State Tuition”) and a full bachelor’s degree in one of Quebec’s universities is typically three years (because Quebec has a separate program between high school and university). So a full degree at McGill can cost less than $6,000. The “Best Value College” according to The Princeton Review is the University of Central Florida which charges $17,017 a year for Out-of-State students. Other expenses seem fairly similar between these two universities. UCF’s ranking is 16th for “Their Students (Almost) Never Study,” which is obviously a very important factor in selecting an institution of higher learning. We wouldn’t want these kind souls to be wasting their time studying! So, “best value” in the U.S. is quite different from “best value” in Canada. (AFAIK, no Canadian university charges as much as $17,000 a year in tuition fees.)

Ah, well…


University Rankings and Diversity

Speaking of Concordia University, it is officially taking position in favour of international principles for university rankings instead of those set out by a magazine.
Full Press Release

Concordia uses two of the items in the list of Purposes and Goals of Rankings for the Berlin Principles to explain its decision not to participate in the magazine ranking.

3. Recognize the diversity of institutions and take the different missions and goals of institutions into account. Quality measures for research-oriented institutions, for example, are quite different from those that are appropriate for institutions that provide broad access to underserved communities. Institutions that are being ranked and the experts that inform the ranking process should be consulted often.

5. Specify the linguistic, cultural, economic, and historical contexts of the educational systems being ranked. International rankings in particular should be aware of possible biases and be precise about their objective. Not all nations or systems share the same values and beliefs about what constitutes “quality” in tertiary institutions, and ranking systems should not be devised to force such comparisons.

Through these items, an image of institutional diversity seems to emerge. Concordia, instead of focusing on prestige or pseudo-objective measures of student satisfaction, proposes an educational philosophy with an emphasis on diversity and flexibility. Perhaps because of this philosophy, Concordia is an ideal context for me to teach and learn. Not that it necessarily deserves the highest ranking in surveys. But that it represents very precisely the type of place where people care about actual knowledge more than about public recognition. Public recognition can help some academic institutions maintain an aura of educational excellence but actual learning occurs in diverse contexts.


Institutions of Higher Learning

Smaller, more convivial institutions can provide a better learning and teaching experience than large, prestigious insitutions.A future show on Radio Open Source will discuss university administration.

(This is a copy of an entry from my other blog.) Continue reading