The Truth Behind the Numbers

 
 

As UCD slips in the world rankings, Ause Abdelhaq questions the effectiveness of the ranking system.


LIFE hands us a lot of choices. On a daily basis, a person is faced with thousands of decisions: when to wake, what to eat, where to park. The list goes on. For the most part, we decide in a split second. We don’t weigh up the consequences of every action before deciding, the reason being that many decisions are inconsequential. They don’t affect the big picture. Sure, eating fruit instead of chocolate for lunch might make you feel better about yourself on any given day, yet, in the absence of fruit, you won’t refrain from eating. In reality, people don’t dwell on small decisions – but spend excessive time on the big ones.

Big decisions scare everyone, but more often than not, the younger a person is, the more likely that fear is to affect them. As a result, whenever it comes to making a choice which might have real, long-term consequences, we automatically search for a crutch. This is evident at every stage in life – we turn to our elders most of the time, but when we’re forced to make a decision ourselves, we often want someone to tell us what to do. This is never truer than when choosing which university to attend.

“people find salvation in objectivity; when you can’t trust your own opinion, a formula which provides the answer becomes a godsend.”

It’s a decision that can take months. Endless meetings with guidance counsellors, trips to informative seminars, pouring over prospectus after prospectus, discussions and debates with parents that seem to last a lifetime. Choosing a third level institution is stressful, difficult and truly important. The reason so many young people struggle with the choice is simple: it’s the first time in life when they’re asked to make such a big decision knowing that the answer has life-changing significance.

In the midst of all this difficulty, people find salvation in objectivity; when you can’t trust your own opinion, a formula which provides the answer becomes a godsend. They reach a point where anything that seems like it’s somewhat scientific can be trusted. In this uncertainty, university ranking systems prosper and thrive. The appeal is clear to see: instead of trusting yourself and making a decision, you leave it up to the experts; people who undoubtedly know what it is that makes a great college and what that means for you.

However, as anyone who has ever attended a third level institution can tell you, university is almost entirely an individual experience. If you don’t feel comfortable in an environment, there’s no ranking on earth that can make you believe that it’s the best place for you to be.

If we consider the importance of university rankings objectively, they appear irrelevant. There are at least five major “systems” which rank our tertiary institutions year on year, with seemingly arbitrary standards of value attached to each. So why is it that we afford them so much respect and consideration, not only when it comes to choosing which university to attend, but also when it comes to allocating resources within that institution?

The problem with the system is that the rankings form a disconnect between an institution and its students. Instead of nurturing a strong sense of community between their members, colleges are now essentially branded machines which spit out a certain type of student with a certain GPA on their degree or a certain type of research undertaken in order to maintain or better their standing.

“why is it that we afford them so much respect and consideration, not only when it comes to choosing which university to attend, but also when it comes to allocating resources within that institution?”

The scramble of institutions to ensure that they rise in the rankings can often be at the detriment to the current student population – for example, a university might choose to open a new science research facility instead of investing in a 24-hour library. This might lead to obvious dissatisfaction amongst those who attend the university, but dissatisfaction can’t be measured in an algorithm. Thus, the divide between institution and student is widened even further.

Those who are in favour of rankings would argue that a university’s position helps a potential employer in deciding who to hire – but that’s not always true. In fact, there is not one piece of evidence to suggest that employers even care. Outside of the top twenty institutions, the majority of companies most likely would not being able to tell the difference. There are hundreds of alternative factors that are taken into account: qualification, grades, interview, skills etc.

In reality, few care about university rankings to any level beyond mild interest. They exist in order to provide a respite for those who fear making decisions, they survive by taking advantage of that fear and they cause issues because they determine how resources are divided within our institutions.

We already live in a society which values brand name over consumer identity, but education is an area that has remained relatively untainted. Yet, with the rise in media coverage of university rankings over the last number of years, it seems that may be beginning to change.

 

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