World University Rankings

I’m somewhat suspicious of league tables and rankings – although not suspicious enough to reject them entirely (yet). But however one personally feels about them, it’s impossible, as an academic to escape them. I was thus very interested in reading Howard Hotson’s analysis of the World University Rankings. US universities figure heavily in the world top 20. A quick glance at the rankings might thus suggest that we should adopt the US model to improve our university system. However, Hotson argues that if we take into account such obvious factors as population size, and amount invested into the university system, the data actually reveals the opposite.

The natural interpretation of the World University Rankings flies in the face of the key assumption underpinning current British government policy. Market competition in the United States has driven up tuition fees in the private universities and thereby sucked out the resources needed to sustain good public universities, while diverting a hugely wasteful share of these resources from academic priorities to improving the ‘student experience’ and debasing academic credentials through market-driven grade inflation. The partially privatised university system in the United States is not ‘the best of the best’. In terms of value for money, the British system is far better, and probably the best in the world. Willetts should follow the example of the health secretary, take advantage of a ‘natural break in the legislative process’, and go back to the drawing board.

Thanks to Jonathan for drawing our attention to this article in comments.

12 thoughts on “World University Rankings

  1. The reasoning in Hotson”s article is puzzling to me.

    First, let me say that (a) I am a US academic, and (b) I am quite willing to believe that UK universities offer a better value.

    But how does market competition drive up fees? I don’t understand that at all. Competition *among universities* must surely drive fees downward. Does Hotson mean competition *among students*? I just don’t follow the reasoning.

    How do private universities suck the resources out of public ones?

    How has “market competition” led to grade inflation? (It’s true, certainly, that the US has both, in higher ed., but I don’t see how the one is supposed to cause the other.)

    The most disturbing aspect of the article, to my mind, is that Hotson simply takes it for granted that IT IS A BAD THING for a country to devote a larger percentage of its resources to higher education. The fact that the US devotes a lot more of our resources to higher ed that the UK does is supposed to be the definitive proof that the American method is worse. I wonder if readers of this blog agree.

  2. James, though I’m not certain, I believe the US has less institutions of higher education per capita than the UK does, which would explain how market competition would increase fees. Though the US has the most universities ranked in the top 200, the per capita rate is less than the UK.

  3. I think Hotson thinks that market forces drive up fees in the sense that one way to market something is to make it very expensive, because then people will think it is better quality. So one way to make your institution appear very prestigious and exclusive is to make it very expensive. In addition, when market forces come into play, universities start selling themselves on more than just their academic strengths – they start selling themselves on the quality of their student accommodation and extra-curricular activities. These cost money to run, which is then raised through fees.

    The claim that private institutions suck the resources out of public ones refers to ‘resources’ in a broad sense: available teachers, bright students, etc. And the thought is that private institutions are better able to attract good teachers etc. than public ones, because they have more money available. That then means those things aren’t available to the public institution. His evidence for that is the fact that the best public universities are geographically remote from private universities, and thus have more of those resources available.

    Finally, Hotson doesn’t assume that it’s a bad thing for a country to devote lots of money to education. What he points out is that given the greater amount of public spending on unis in US, together with the ratio of universities/population, we should expect the US universities to be doing better in the league table than they are. Without taking rate of spending, plus ratio of unis to population into account, the league tables can’t be properly interpreted. This is quite different from claiming it’s a bad thing to invest money in education.

  4. Kathryn, I don’t see how fewer-per-capita leads to driving up fees. Furthermore, a much larger percentage of adults attend university in the US than in the UK.

    Monkey, fair point about ‘marketing’. But I don’t buy the “private sucking resources from public” thing. Look at the Leiter top 12 in the US, for instance — half of them are public. (I know, philosophy might be highly unrepresentative, but my impression is that it is not.) And why should we think that the pool of university teachers is fixed? More plausibly, the US is able to support a larger number of professors than it would with only public universities.
    And I think you are wrong about what Hotson is saying. He thinks that the larger share of resources devoted to higher ed in the US means that the UK should stay away from that model. He thinks the extra money is being squandered. I can’t agree with that.

  5. James, if that’s true that a larger percentage of Americans attend college/university, and there are fewer institutions per capita, supply and demand would predict that fees in the US would be higher since there is less supply and more demand.

  6. No, I don’t think so, Kathryn. If there are more students and fewer universities, that simply means that there are more students per university. It says nothing at all about supply and demand. Since the market has cleared, we know that supply = demand in the US! And in the UK the price of education is not set by the market, so we have no idea about the relative demand and supply at current UK prices.

    I am not defending the market model, by the way; I’m only questioning the reasoning. I see that Brian Leiter has declared that the article is fact-free nonsense, so now I *know* I’m right!

  7. Ha! Well, I shall just have to concede then. :) But seriously, I’m still not sure that’s right. If we take into account that one of the major draws of private schools is the student to faculty ratio and smaller class sizes, and we take into account that the number of prospective students has been increasing in the US overtime, it seems like if you were to take in an increasing number of students, while maintaining what makes private institutions desirable/competitive in the market, then an institution would require, overtime, larger facilities (dorms, classroom buildings, recreational facilities, parking lots, etc.), which are all very expensive in the short term per student (not to mention additional faculty, etc.), then it seems like fees would go up in order to cover those extra costs. Or, schools could raise fees anyhow, because there are enough prospective students in the market willing to pay the extra premium, and then put that money towards various projects that might not otherwise have been done (and at my undergrad institution, the board of trustees approved a tuition increase one year, essentially, on this rationale). It might be that supply=demand in the US for the number of available slots as an undergrad student, but I suspect there are plenty of students at Big-State-School X that would rather be at Harvard or Yale.

  8. I think the arguments we can make about the article are limited by Hotson’s mistake: to discuss, in ‘market’ terms, the decisions of American families and students when paying for college. There are so many ways in which the possibilities are not easily mapped onto markets. It’s about as far from deciding what sort of bar of soap to buy as possible, so complex that I can’t begin to address it all.

  9. Kathryn, I don’t follow your argument. Of course building new dorms is incredibly expensive in the short term, but (a) it is just as expensive for public institutions, and for institutions in the UK, and (b) surely universities are able to amortize the cost, and possibly gain some efficiency from economies of scale. (I believe that in practice, the private universities that build posh new dorms are the ones with enormous endowments, or enormous per student endowments, rather than the ones that are going to raise fees to pay for the dorms. Donors love fancy new dorms. Ditto for rec facilities.) What’s more, Harvard and Princeton are not increasing the size of their student bodies. They’re just becoming even more selective. Administrators love this — it makes them look good.

    ProfBigK: yes, I agree. And on the other side of the cash register, it’s doubtful that a Board of Trustees or a State Board of Regents sets fees in a way that’s relevantly similar to a profit-seeking corporate marketing department. So generalizations (including mine) about how market forces can be expected to influence prices of higher education in the US should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

  10. I saw an interesting comment somewhere else (can’t find it now) suggesting that the methodology of the World University Rankings inherently favours a country like the UK, where the relevant research output resides disproportionately in universities of the type eligible to be counted in the survey. By comparison (it was argued), the US suffers in the rankings due to its higher proportion of (in many cases world-class) non-university research institutes as well as liberal arts colleges.

  11. I’m not sure you should see Hotson as endorsing the market model. I think the point is that the current British government does, and by its (the government’s) own lights, the rankings don’t support moving to a system like the US, which is more like a market system.

    Nemo – that could well be the case.

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