One of the most irritating aspects of my grownup life is the fact that I spend a great deal of time with people who care about academic rankings.
This is repugnant to me not because I disagree that it is important to strive for excellence - oh no. My problem with rankings is the fact that they are meaningful in a factory where input = output.
How does that translate to education, where standards can only be reliably applied to basic and largely irrelevant goals like achievement on standardised tests, or the performance of school sports teams?
It is literally impossible to assemble a committee who agree on what 'excellence' means for a host of subjects like literature and history. Both are prone to fads and fashions, but they are also an integral part of a comprehensive education.
You might be able to trick yourself into thinking certain scientific fields can be judged by abstract standards, but real innovative research of any kind certainly cannot. The sciences, like the humanities, are highly creative and as such unwieldy. Look at the history of any major scientific breakthrough (while thanking the trained historians who have collected the stories) and you will note a proliferation of themes of luck, happenstance, and mercy.
And how were most of our famous scientists educated? In a traditional manner nearly impossible to replicate in our corporate and scattered times. Up until about thirty years ago rankings and ratings were an element of judgment, not the engine of policy, and back then the emphasis was on a classical education.
But it is difficult to quantify a classical or liberal arts education: so hopelessly old-fashioned and impractical to teach a broad curriculum, to nurture debate and investigation. Even if that is also irrefutably the foundation of, oh, civilisation as we know it.
It might be easy for a government agency to develop metrics to say this-or-that institution is "better" and even "best" but to compile or interpret that data you must first ascribe to a whole set of beliefs that are simply repugnant. Should a student be judged simply on attendance and numerical output, as opposed to effort or interest? Should a scholar be judged on how many papers he or she has published? Grades and stats are not a verifiably accurate way of judging academic achievement, they are just. . . available. The obvious flaw is the fact that quality and quantity are two different things.
Kind of like honour and honesty.
This is of course a bitter little diatribe, but I'm not a critical outsider; my alma mater was rated the "best" liberal arts college in America when I was there, and the graduate school I attended is currently recognised as a top school for public affairs. Yet we were never subject to grading or testing. So what informed those rankings? The overall reputation of the institution, the career placements of graduates, and our stated satisfaction with the programs.
While I dislike college towns, I am fervently in favour of the kind of education offered by the traditional universities. The danger I see now is that the coalition government, with the new research directives, is harming institutions that have done a pretty good job of looking after their own business. For eight hundred years.
Intellectual integrity should not be on sale to the highest bidder, and should certainly never be prostituted for government funding.