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Top-ranking institutions told to ‘check their privilege’

Arma 2021: Elizabeth Gadd says rankings only benefit “old, large, wealthy, white, English-speaking research intensives”

Prestigious institutions that traditionally benefit from global university rankings have been told to “check their privilege”.

Speaking at the 2021 Association of Research Managers and Administrators conference, Elizabeth Gadd, head of research operations at the University of Glasgow, claimed the most influential university rankings “are not measuring societal impact, equality and diversity, academic freedom or even teaching quality”.

Although the listings vary slightly between rankers, she said research had shown that the top universities in such rankings “are all old, large, wealthy, white, English-speaking research intensives in the global north”.

“None of this would matter if no one used [the rankings]—if they were just a back-page curiosity in a printed magazine which they used to be,” Gadd added. “But no, they are big business with applications across lots of stakeholders.”

For example, Gadd pointed out, they are used by students to decide where to study, while slight changes in ranking position can cause “perceptible ebbs and flows in the number and quality of applicants to universities”.

“That’s not surprising when you consider that employers use rankings as a shortcut to identify the quality of an institution and therefore of the graduate who studied there.”

Moreover, she added, academics use rankings to determine which institution to work in and which to leave. Meanwhile, governments use rankings to decide where to allocate resources, and credit-rating bodies use them to decide which university is a good investment.

“None of this is good for scholarship,” Gadd said. “Decisions made on a false premise—that the rankings measure the best universities rather than the old, large, white, wealthy, ones are never good decisions.”

Joining forces

Gadd urged universities to “join forces” and agree to challenge rankings together.

“Given that we are in fact a group of organisations with the same mission and not a group of organisations in the same competition, no matter what the world might tell us, it feels like this should be achievable if we keep our eye on that,” she told the conference.

She recognised that this would be “a more difficult ask” for those that traditionally benefit from the rankings, “but given that the rankings systematically favour the old, large, wealthy, white, English-speaking research-intensives in the global north, I think we do have to check our privilege here”.

“I believe and I hope that a time is coming where the promotion of our ranking position will be as unsavoury as privately educated white men making claims about meritocracy: there isn’t one.”

Gadd’s comments follow her work with the International Network of Research Management Societies’ research evaluation working group, which has developed a system to assess the worldwide university ranking systems.

Research Professional News is the official media partner for Arma 2021.