Is the switch in rankings’ focus masking the West’s decline?

recent commentary in The Lancet by Richard Horton presented criticism of international university rankings, including a briefing paper from the United Nations University (UNU) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Horton makes some relevant comments on the rankings, although his survey is very limited and incomplete, and he argues that they need to be reformed to hold universities accountable for their social responsibilities. He notes that the UNU report suggests doing away with rankings altogether.

The status of The Lancet is such that this article provides insight into the collective thinking of the Western academic and scientific establishment and it therefore needs some attention.

To start with, getting rid of rankings, as posited in the article, sounds like a good idea, but it is not really feasible. Bureaucrats and faculty in the big brand universities are not suggesting that every university is as good as any other, that their salaries or tuition fees be reduced to the industry average, that research grants be allocated randomly or that their students are no more employable or intelligent than those at other places.

Until they do so, calls for the abolition or radical restructuring of rankings should be regarded with suspicion. The end of formal ranking or any kind of external comparative assessment would just be a return to the age of deference when the anointed elite could impose its self-perceptions with little regard for any real merit or relevance.

We would be back in a world where everybody knows that Oxbridge, the Ivy League and the Sorbonne are superior, perhaps in ways that only superior people can see, to everywhere else.

I recall somebody recently saying that Yale was doing just fine before the US News rankings came along and that it doesn’t really need them. That is probably true and explains the apparent paradox of Yale Law School being so critical of a ranking in which it has always held first place.

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