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Neoliberalism and Rankings in Higher Education

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University rankings where individual institutions are classified according to their scoring in a variety of indicators have become widespread as a tool to measure performance and homogeneize the field of higher education. Rankings are an inevitable consequence of neoliberalism in higher education “as they are integral to audit and surveillance systems of regulation and control. They alter the internal culture of universities in terms of what they measure”. Rankings enhance transparency, which is a positive trait, but given their political motivation they put pressure on higher education institutions “to change from being ‘a center of learning’ to being ‘a business organization with productivity targets’. They are expected to transfer allegiance from the academic to the operational”. Lynch correctly states that: “Treating change as a purely ‘technical matter’, means that market values can be encoded in the heart of the university’s operations without reflection. When universities focus on ‘key performance indicators’ this directs attention to measured outputs rather than processes and inputs within education, including those of nurturing and caring”.

Rankings induce “reactivity” that, in turn, “alters patterns of investment, intake and outputs of higher education. Universities can and do improve or retain their ranks by excluding risk factors that would downgrade their status”. As rankings form public perceptions of universities, “senior administrators have to manage their ranking whether they wish to or not”. Thus, “a range of ‘gaming strategies’ are deployed to advance university position in rankings”.

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One of the most notable of these responses is the increased funding for ‘merit’ scholarships to attract elite students. “Merit scholarships work to the advantage of the already privileged applicants for a number of reasons, mostly because educational attainment is, in the first instant, highly dependent on the expenditure of resources in a competitive system”. Parents “can and do use private resources to the advantage of their own children in economically unequal societies”. As Lynch (2013) notes: “As trust in professional integrity and peer regulation has been replaced by performance indicators, the quality of peer relations is also diminished. Relating through audits and appraisals enhances hierarchies and diminishes goodwill and collegiality. Rewarding staff on a measurable item-by-item performance basis also leads to a situation where personal career interests increasingly govern everyday academic life. As there are opportunities in the market for commercialized professionals and academics, internal divisions between staff in the universities are inevitable and open to exploitation by management. Academic capitalism brings highly individualized rewards to those who engage”.

As mentioned earlier, one major problem of focusing on “performance measurement” is that it negatively impacts on the cultural life of students “as they are directed increasingly to economic self-interest and credential acquisition”. The noble ideals of students and staff to work for the common good and in the service of humanity by doing public service is seriously curtailed in a context “where universities operate as entrepreneurial, purely competitive, business-oriented corporations”.

Neoliberalism, the new managerialism, and the marketization of universities trigger the merging of commerce and research. WE now have a situation in many universities where the interests and values of business drive university research. To be sure, universities need to interact with different publics and deal with a variety of interests and priorities, but “the ethical principles and priorities of the business sector are not synonymous with those of a university”. The danger is very real that the interests of university research can become synonym with those of powerful agencies and individuals in the case that universities become too reliant on industry-funded research, or too indebted to the business-driven agenda of the government of today.

According to Hazelkorn (2011), “rankings have become normalized and regarded as inevitable even among those who recognize their many limitations. ” For example, the European Union and many other powerful multilateral agencies have accepted rankings as a routine tool for analysis. The EU developed a project in 2008 about crafting a new ranking system that would be more comprehensive than those currently in use. Their intention was to comprehensively rank 500 universities on multiple criteria by 2014.

Rankings imply a powerful ‘methodological fetishism’. Matters of methodology and accuracy in using specific methodologies (positivistic and quantitative) take the place of serious reflection of the nature and appropriateness of comparing institutions that are essentially unique and different among them. The focus is on getting the rankings correct, even if this has little value unless the context and politics of the use of rankings are taken into account. One could also argue that rankings are of benefit to the wealthiest students, as a tool for them to better decided where to attend.

Rankings are also problematic given that they are presented as purely objective measures of reality, neglecting the fact that they obey a specific neoliberal political agenda. What Hacking (1990) termed “the avalanche of numbers” has “profoundly transformed what we choose to do, who we try to be, and what we think of ourselves” in higher education. Further, “assessment measures permit the easy conflation of what is with what ought to be, of what normal is in the statistical and moral sense. ” The perceived neutrality of statistics and quantiative procedures “deflects attention from their capacity to change the places and people that use them”.

The generalized use of rankings to measure and assess performance in higher education has very negative consequences. Rankings are a by-product of a very specific political agenda, where some priorities are taken into account and others are left out. Thus, “rankings direct our attention into a different cognitive and normative order when evaluating higher education”. “Questions regarding the value, purpose and politics of higher education and rankings get swept aside in the bid to find the best ‘method’ of ranking”. Matters regarding access, participation, social justice and outcomes from higher education are usually disregarded in the ‘positivist drive to make ranking technologies more and more “objective”’.

Another consequence is that public intellectual work is unavoidably devalued. Rankings do not measure the role and activities of academics as public intellectuals. They simply measure their communication activities with other academics in a limited range of elite journals, discussing work that is primarily or exclusively the output of commercially funded research. Further, the increased overlapping between private (market) and public perspectives and interests, the disregard of neoliberal universities for public intellectual work, and their disincentive of the important relationship, all of this has as a consequence that knowledge is privatized to closed groups. This situation, as a result, “forecloses the opportunity to have hypotheses tested or challenged from experiential (disinterested) standpoints outside the academy”.

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