Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Thoughts on university rankings

I've been thinking about university rankings.  In light of the latest hullabaloo in the online philosophy community about whether the Philosophy Gourmet Report (PGR) should continue, I wanted to drink some scrumpy, and express the rather conflicting feelings I have on the matter of rankings.

*N.B. I'm not going to voice an opinion on the more personal aspect of this whole affair.  I have a view, and I think it's the obvious one in light of the information I have, but I don't want to perpetuate what must be a very distressing affair for certain people.  My thoughts are about what the PGR is, not how it is done or who does it.

As a (soon to be ex-)grad-student looking for their first job, I feel like my application for any job will be judged based on the school I went to.  As someone who's already paranoid about being judged on non-scholarly grounds, this causes me no small amount of trepidation (even though I went to what I consider to be a very good school!).  Even if this is not the case, I feel like it is, and I know for a fact that I'm not alone in thinking this.  A lot of grad-students lose a lot of sleep worrying about whether their school is good enough, and whether the school they get their first job at will affect their chances of good employment further down the line. With this perception, the damage is already done.  Even when I get  job, I'll feel like the school I'm working at will have in impact on how I'm viewed as a scholar.  For many, this will extend to how they perceive their worth as a scholar (not just how they think others will perceive their worth).

I think the presence of rankings exacerbates this problem.  I obsessed over the PGR when I was applying for grad-school, and since then I've seen more than a few other people do the same.  The presence of rankings encourages students to think of themselves and their peers in terms of those rankings.  A student at a middle rank school may end up thinking of themselves as a mediocre scholar (and conversely, students at top ranked schools may hold the default assumption that they are therefore better and more worthy than those at lower ranked schools).  Indeed, even the application process reinforces this; when someone from a middle ranked school is reluctant to apply to high ranked schools simply because of their institution rather than their ability.

The contrast to this is that prospective grad-students DO WANT this kind of information.  When I applied to grad-school I was very aware that where I ended up could affect my future career, and I wanted to get into 'as good a school as possible'.  Whilst I confess to engaging in that kind of thinking then (and to some extent even now), I really don't think it is helpful.  It contributes to the kind of authoritarian thinking and smug elitism that I (and I hope many others) take philosophy to be against at its very core.

Now, idealism is one thing, but the fact is that the world we live in is the way it is, and a PhD from Oxford is given more value than one from a school lower on the rankings.  Choice of programme IS important, but it should not be because of how a school is ranked.  Having supervisors who support and challenge you, and a lively and engaged research community, are by far the most important things (apart from a well subscribed library).  There's nothing to stop any department from having these features.  Indeed, different students thrive in different environments, so there's no one set standard by which to judge how well a department will serve a student's interests.

I genuinely can't imagine that I could have gone to a better (for me) school.  My grad-school experience was fantastic.  I had amazing peers and supervisors that helped me to unlock potential I didn't even realise I had.  No ranking or external report could have told be that in advance, and there are many schools higher in the rankings where I'm convinced I would have ended up as a worse scholar than the one I am now.  Now, here is the obvious problem for all prospective grad-students:  How do I end up in a school that's so well suited to me?

Sorry folks.  I just don't know.  The reason why I am so conflicted is because I recognise that the choice of department is important, and being the intellectually rigorous folk we are, we want to make informed decisions.  I don't know how we can provide prospective grad-students with the information they need to make good decisions, but I really don't think rankings are the way to help people find the programmes that are right for them, nor do I think it is helpful to the profession as a whole for someone at one school to be able to look down on someone else for being at or from a "shit school" (oops!  Gave myself away, there.  Consider it a reward for reading till the end).