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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Big Lie: we need to know that teaching never matters in university rankings

There was an almost perfect article in the BBC news on line today:

What makes a global top 10 university?

It starts with the usual list of top universities:
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is in first place in the latest league table of the world's best universities.
It's the third year in a row that the US university, famous for its science and technology research, has been top of the QS World University Rankings.
Another science-based university, Imperial College London, is in joint second place along with Cambridge University.
Behind these in fourth place is Harvard University, the world's wealthiest university. And two more UK universities share joint fifth place, University College London and Oxford
Then, it goes on to list how these rankings are calculated:
But how does a university get to the top of the rankings? And why does such a small group of institutions seem to have an iron grip on the top places?
The biggest single factor in the QS rankings is academic reputation. This is calculated by surveying more than 60,000 academics around the world about their opinion on the merits of institutions other than their own.
Ben Sowter, managing director of the QS, says this means that universities with an established name and a strong brand are likely to do better.
The next biggest factor - "citations per faculty" - looks at the strength of research in universities, calculated in terms of the number of times research work is cited by other researchers.
As a template for success, it means that the winners are likely to be large, prestigious, research-intensive universities, with strong science departments and lots of international collaborations.
So, just to be clear, the rankings are all about how much research money the professors have to play with and how famous they get by utilizing that money. I was a professor at top ranked universities for 35 years. I brought in lots of money. I was cited often. And I helped my university in its rankings.
Great. What about teaching students? Never mentioned. I don’t mean never mentioned by this article, I mean in my 35 year career no one mentioned it. In fact, the more money you bring in, the more famous you are, the less you have to teach. That is one reason poorly paid adjuncts are teaching more these days.
I like this article because it says just this quite plainly:
Is that a fair way to rank universities? It makes no reference to the quality of teaching or the abilities of students?
The idea is that a student wanting to find an undergraduate arts course isn't really going to learn much from rankings driven by international science research projects.
And then this:
Those that focus on teaching rather than research will not be as recognized.
They leave out what I like to call “the big lie of college education.” No one ever tells a student applying to Harvard that he will be taught to do research almost exclusively because that is all his professors do or know how to do. He will not be taught to program by his computer science professors because they haven’t written a program in years. He will not be taught how to start a business by his business professors because they have never started one. He will not be taught anything about being a medical doctor because they don’t teach undergraduates. In fact he will not be taught anything of any use in his life at all in college unless he plans to become a researcher.
I never planned to become a researcher but that’s what I learned in college so thats what I became.
So, parents: when you decide to fork over $50,000  a year for Harvard remember Harvard’s goal will be the creating of a researcher. Do yourself and your kid a favor and ask him if that’s what he wants to be when he grows up.
Last week I had a business meeting in New York, and as I often do, I asked the people I was meeting with where they went to college. One said Harvard. He had majored in Economics. So, I said, “you got to meet some Nobel Prize wiener and hear all about microeconomic theory. Do you use any of what you learned there today in your work?”
“No” he said.
Isn’t it time we started talking about teaching? And, while we are at it, could we make that be teaching things that you might use as an adult?

1 comment:

laserblue said...

"Everywhere in Western civilization education is in a state of confusion ... YET in actual practice education is daily under fire of severe criticism. People demand of it all sorts of new things. At the same time they denounce it for its failure to meet the existing demands."
Everett Dean Martin, Whither Mankind (1928), Chapter XV: Education, Pg. 354


As you wrote on your Education webpage, there are only two things wrong with education.
There have been ongoing disputes about the purpose of U.S. Universities and WHAT TO TEACH for a good century at least, particularly since the adoption of the German style research doctorate programs. Just don't look up the definition of "doctorate" because research doctorate programs are not about developing teaching ability. (
The writer of a recent letter to University Affairs magazine ( noted the use of the doctorate in the U.S. as a requirement for administrative positions and as an emblem of status.

The late Professor Edwin T. Jaynes made some interesting remarks regarding teaching and research in a retirement speech that you might find resonates with your viewpoint.