I’ll be brief. All kinds of teacup storms bubble up every year about rankings, especially with regard to Ireland’s ‘falling performance’, and usually with a focus on our leading institution, Trinity College Dublin. If we look at how things actually are, however, without a sub-editor’s eye for disaster, the situation seems less awful. Here is a link to Trinity’s rankings page. Check out the box on the right, on the ‘historical data’.
We can ignore the numbers before 2011 (when QS split from Time Higher Education [THE], and they both went their separate ranking ways after 2009), and focus on what has happened in the QS ranking. Now, the weightings change for all of the rankings somewhat (though not really or at all for for the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities [ARWU]), but even with those fluctuations, Trinity’s score has in fact been improving. The rank has bopped around the place a bit, but there isn’t much to suggest that there is some kind of horrific decline in evidence here. Trinity’s QS score is improving, but its rank is not. So, we have to include that perhaps Trinity is getting better, but that other universities and institutions may simply be getting better more quickly.
Now, I know there is lots to disagree with here. QS scores what it finds important, Trinity is thus only getting better/staying the same according to what the QS wants etc. But there isn’t much sign of decline, with Trinity or other Irish HEIs. Trinity even made it into the ARWU top 200 hundred this year (one of the more research-stringent rankings, and begetter of all this “world class university” chatter). So yeah. Not quite the decline and fall that makes for good click-bait, but there you have it.
Sidebar: I note that Imperial College London is joint second this year in the QS. So what with the LSE and MIT similarly highly ranked, you’d think Trinity’s powers that be might consider the renaming exercise….
“Plentiful information leads to scarcity of attention. When people are overwhelmed with the volume of information confronting them, they have difficulty knowing what to focus on. Attention, rather than information, becomes the scarce resource, and those who can distinguish valuable information from background clutter gain power. Cue-givers become more in demand, and this is a source of power for those who can tell us where to focus our attention.
Among editors and cue-givers, credibility is the crucial resource and an important source of soft power. Reputation becomes even more important than in the past, and political struggles occur over the creation and destruction of credibility.”
Joseph Nye, The Future of Power, pp. 103-4
While looking around on the website of the Institute of International and Economic Affairs (IIEA, an Dublin-based think-tank), I discovered the following lecture by Sugata Mitra. Mitra, originally trained as a physicist, and then got into programming and technology, which has led to his present work on getting computers into schools and the ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment. Ken Robinson’s TED talk gets a lot of attention (arguably too much if you’re me and you’re arguing), and though it undoubtedly introduced many people to the debates surrounding what education is and should be, it never quite hit the spot for me. Mitra’s lecture here – which admittedly isn’t subject to the TED tyranny of 20 minutes – goes from the history of education and technology in education, to the implications of sociological research on teaching and education, to specific policy and technical suggestions. It’s an hour long, but well worth watching. Alternatively, check out his own two TED talks below (Mitra also won the TED Prize in 2013). Much cause for optimism with the future of technology in education, mercifully free of the platitudes of tech in pedagogy and ‘there’s an app for that’.
The complement to a culture of celebrity has become therefore the unabashed theater of cruelty, the public spaces where we gaze upon the half-speed car wrecks of the lives of others in the throes of failure, Nascar for the politically challenged. In one sense the programming of everyday sadism explicitly aimed at the poor and distressed is so ubiquitous that one need hardly recite the titles: The Jerry Springer Show, Dr. Phil, The Apprentice, Shattered, Unbreakable, Big Brother, Hell’s Kitchen, Survivor, American Idol - it is hardly worth the minor effort that it takes to disparage it. A moment’s reflection reveals it is pervasive in American culture. Unremarkable people, desperate for some sort of acknowledgement and validation, yearning for some promise of escape from the stale and commonplace, offer themselves up on the altar of abject humiliation to an audience of millions; smarmy celebrities berate them to their face; and the spectacles proliferate because they are cheaper for the networks to program than either scripted fiction or news. In many instances, the audience is even encouraged to pay to “vote” for those to ostracize and banish – a clear simulacrum of the neoliberal marketplace.
Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste, p. 133.
This sums up, in a few sentences, what has sat unparsed in my mind for the better part of a decade. I recall once in conversation using the title “America’s Got Schadenfreude” as simultaneous shorthand for and dismissal of these types of shows. It saved discussion. The characterisation so satisfied me that I had left things at that, and moved on to other things. I don’t own a television and I don’t watch television on my laptop. These shows are of no relevance to me. Yet what Mirowski writes here is important because it explains why not caring about (or indeed carrying around a psychologically analogical underground coal-seam fire of hatred for) these shows isn’t simply snobbery. That is the usual assumption when the subject comes up. “I don’t watch television” is a sentence that is becoming increasingly difficult for people to interpret in any other way than “I think I am superior to you”. The truth is closer to the polar opposite in that I think we are, all of us, so much better than what is put up on our televisions. Perhaps the part of my brain dedicated to a love of documentaries, PBS, and the (old) BBC is hyperdeveloped, and pressing on that part of the brain concerned with ‘just enjoying’ myself. So be it.
A few things popped Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) on my radar, and so I got an old copy for myself online. The edition I have is from 1976, with a new introduction from the author where he attempts to lessen the strain of the excessively heavy lifting some of his ideas were being forced to do by subsequent interpreters. What struck me is that for a 40 year old book, much the same conversations are being had, although it appears that in some respects we have leap-frogged the substantive elements in favour of nitty-gritty technical fixes. Bell’s book rewinds us to these bigger picture problems. Continue reading
Messing around with some of the results available from the Times Higher Education World University Rankings website, it’s interesting to note that near the top of the ranking over the years, things stay relatively stable, and further down there’s quite a bit of variation. In an ideal world, all the datasets would be available for download and easily manipulable (transparency!) but this is not yet the case. Anyway, doing some work for work, here’s a selection of a few institutions with their ranks plotted from the last THE-QS ranking in 2009-2010, to the most recent THE(-TR) ranking for 2013-2013.
There’s quite a bit of change from 2009-2010 to 2010-2011, when THE split from QS (or vice versa). This split resulted in a change in methodology and weightings, but things have not yet settled down, because weightings have either continued to change (though they have stayed the same since 2011 and 2012 it seems), but as Andrejs Rauhvargers notes (pdf), “the scores of all indicators, except those for the Academic Reputation Survey [...] have been calucalted differently.” As well as this, in a recent journal article (“Where Are the Global Rankings Leading Us? An Analysis of Recent Methodological Changes and New Developments”), Rauhvargers notes that the THE doesn’t/won’t publish the scores of its 13 indicators. Transparency! Anyway, for what its worth, here are some pretty pictures that illustrate the noisiness of the rankings. Just fooling around with the data to see if I will return to this with the data for the full top 200 over the past 5 years.