Week 6: Ethics of University Rankings

After reading the resources about citation methods and tools in this weeks module, I started looking for some recent news articles about citation issues in academia. What ended up catching my interest was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about university rankings. The article was specifically in response to the recent rankings publication in QS which can be found here. I thought that it brought up some interesting points and I wanted to share my thoughts.

I remember during my senior year of high school looking at the US news rankings of colleges and universities when I was trying to decide where to apply. I had honestly not really thought much about college before this point and having some resource to guide me was a really helpful starting point. At this time in my life I was not yet aware of how subjective these rankings were. As I have continued my education and especially as a graduate student, I have come to realize how subjective and often flawed these rankings are. In my specific case, other factors dictated where I actually ended up applying and attending.

In the article the author brings up some of the specific issues with QS and the methods that they use to create their rankings. I think that one of the most concerning issues that the author brought up was the commercial aspect of the rankings and how a university can essentially pay for a higher rank. The quote below is from the article in the Chronicle:

“QS offers paid consulting services to improve a university’s ranking, as well as paid “guidance” for university leaders. Indeed, the enterprise is so brazen that it effectively sells rating approval for a price.”

-Brian Leiter, Academic Ethics: To Rank or Not to Rank?

It seems obvious that this is an ethical issue for the organization that produces rankings. As a student I would not trust a ranking that was subject to these serious questions related to the ethics of their methods. The real problem, however, is that before becoming a graduate student and exploring the issues related to higher education, I would have never realized that this was something I needed to be aware of.

The other really important aspect of rankings that I never considered before reading the article, but can personally relate to, is how international students rely on university rankings. Leiter writes:

“Millions of students in Asia, Africa, and South America seek advanced education; in many cases, their home countries will fund some or all of their graduate studies. These students have little way of gauging what is on offer abroad; hence the incentive for the global rankers. The university-rankings industry preys on the least-informed students and on the universities desperate for their tuition revenue”

-Brian Leiter, Academic Ethics: To Rank or Not to Rank?

As a high school student I relied on university rankings to give me an idea of universities and so I can relate to the international students who are also using the rankings to find universities. This made me realize that although I disagree with the overall philosophy of rankings, there is a need for students to be able to compare different schools and the programs that they offer. I think that the real solution to this problem is getting away from numerical raking systems that are based on subjective measures and often do not accurately represent student experiences. If instead students were given qualitative comparisons and were encouraged to explore specific programs that are offered, I believe students would be much happier and more successful. It is much more important to attend a university at which a student feels valued, has a culture that they fit in with and curriculum that aligns with their goals as opposed to attending a university simply due to a high website ranking.

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