University rankings and sport

University rankings and sport

Sports often make interesting metaphors for discussing internationalisation. Being a semi-serious sports fan and a long distance runner, I was intrigued by the recent article by Maria Yudkevich, Philip Altbach and Laura Rumbley in Times Higher Education. The authors saw many parallels between university rankings and the Olympics. Having watched the IAAF Athletics World Championships over the last week, I could not help but add to, but maybe also counter, some of points they made.

The article drew a parallel between Olympic athletes and universities, but also between countries or systems related to sports and higher education. Doping and academic misconduct were seen as similar phenomena and universities were suggested to be like Olympic athletes in pursuing the centre podium – ie the top positions in global rankings. Countries boasting about the quality of their universities was likened to what they do to athletes.

The real difference

I would argue that there is one key difference between global university rankings and Olympic sports. In the latter, success can be clearly measured and there is often very little dispute as to who was the best on any given day. After all, when Usain Bolt clocked in at 9.79 and Justin Gatlin at 9.80 this past week, there was a clear winner – albeit with the smallest of margins. Both athletes started through the heats and semi-finals and went head-to-head to see who the fastest man was. But universities are not like athletes; there is no ‘stopwatch’ to indicate the best university. If the International Association of Athletics Federations used the same methodology as some university rankings do, up to 50% of the Olympic final would depend on votes by fellow athletes, coaches, and even the spectators.

Some rankings only look at the research performance of universities. What would that mean in the world of sport, I wonder? Wouldn’t it be like only measuring the first jump in the triple jump competition? Or handing out the medals after the first day of the Women’s Heptathlon and forgetting the second day altogether?

In the world of rankings we have seen a proliferation of what I will call ‘sub-rankings’. Universities in BRIC countries, universities that are less than 50 years old and even most innovative universities have their own lists. We have also seen lists of best business schools and universities with the most CEOs. This, too, is something you see in the world of sports. You have your Special Olympics, World Senior Games, Asian Games, not to mention some fairly peculiar events in my own home country of Finland, such as Wife Carrying World Championships and Swamp Soccer World Championships. Can we expect to see a global university ranking for the most left-handed students? Or one for the largest collection of bird eggs? If you do not stack up in the global rankings, do you get to just create your own?

It is easy to agree with Yudkevich, Altbach and Rumbley; not everyone should focus on Olympic-level competition or their university-ranking equivalent. If you do not qualify for the Olympics, should you give up sport altogether? Surely not! But while creating your own games for the sport you just invented can be fun, it is little more than that.

What is a good university?

So far, rankings have failed us in being able to provide an answer to the question: What is the bottom line for universities? What constitutes a ‘good’ university? How much ahead is Harvard from the rest of us? Maybe it is the 1/100th of a second between Bolt and Gatlin. But maybe it is more like Bolt and Tashi Dendup, who clocked in at 12:15 in Heat 2 on 23 August. Even so, it is worth noting that Tashi is probably the fastest guy in his country, and also a serious athlete.

Before electronic timing and photo finish were invented, the winners of Olympic events were timed manually, which in many cases gave false results. This most likely meant that the fastest person did not always win gold. Where university rankings are concerned, I think we have not even invented the stopwatch yet. It seems that we are announcing winners looking at tea leaves or, at best, calendars. And, just maybe, we are only looking at the first 30 meters of a 100 meter race.

Markus Laitinen is Vice-President of the European Association for International Education

Markus Laitinen
University of Helsinki, FinlandMarkus Laitinen is Head of International Affairs of the University of Helsinki and is the immediate past President of the EAIE.