Q&A with Michelle Stack

January 17, 2020

Michelle Stack is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at UBC. Her book Global University Rankings and the Mediatization of Higher Education was published in 2015 and formed the basis for an International Research Roundtable that was recently held at the Peter Wall Institute. 

As a guest in the Institute’s podcast, Michelle Stack sat down with PWIAS Interim Director Kalina Christoff for a conversation on university rankings and the pervasive, yet often unappreciated, role they play in higher education. 

This Q&A is an excerpt from episode one of the Ways of Knowing podcast. You can listen to the full episode here.

Kalina Christoff: How did you become interested in university rankings?

Michelle Stack: I think the first time I got interested, I just noticed how often rankings were brought up in department meetings and faculty. I found myself clapping when we were told the rankings were going up, but I started to think that I should really know what I’m clapping for. And so I became interested. 

I had done research looking at K to 12 rankings and how schools were seen as good or bad based on those rankings and how connected that often was to whether a school was private or public, in a wealthy area or a poor area. And also, a colleague had asked me if I wanted to do a presentation looking at the role of media in higher education. I’ve always been interested in the role of media in educational policy and how we look at ourselves when we look at people that we consider to be different than ourselves. 

KC: So what do we clap for? We obviously clap when we hear a particular number that we get from somewhere, but where do these numbers come from?

MS: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I mean there are more than 25 rankings that consider themselves to be international rankings, and about 150 consider themselves to be national or regional rankings. There’s three that are often called the Big Three and that’s QS World University Rankings, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the ARWU Ranking, also known as the Shanghai Ranking. 

What the rankings have in common is that they tend to see private education, private universities in the United States, as the top universities that others should aspire to. In the UK, Oxford and Cambridge are the other two that are often in the top 10. Rarely is there a public university considered highly ranked, so we’re clapping really for universities that are some of the most inequitable higher education institutions.

KC: How do wealthy and private universities end up being ranked so much higher?

MS: If we look at the ARWU Ranking for example, 30 percent of it is based on the number of Nobel Prize winners on faculty or alumni. Now, maybe we look at that and say “OK, that maybe makes sense.” But let’s dig into that a bit more, 95 percent of Nobel Prize winners are male. Most are from a select few universities. 

Because Nobel Prize winners are such a key part of the rankings, universities spend a lot of money trying to acquire them to be on faculty. These people aren’t going to be teaching undergrad classes for the most part. And they’re very expensive to get on faculty, so there’s a question there in terms of whether this in the best interests of students or even research—when we hire one person and we could hire a number of assistants or associates for the same price. 

The other thing that goes into the ARWU Ranking is the number of papers in Nature or Science. All three rankings look at the number of articles in high impact journals. Those journals are mainly captured by two citation databases that have been sharply criticized for monopoly practices, Elsevier being one of them. 

We need to look at who profits from rankings and how rankings are interconnected with other parts of the global education industry. And that’s what this is, it’s a global education industry. In looking at, for example, how rankings look at whether a university is productive, they’re looking at high impact journals that are captured by one of two databases. They’re making profits that rival Apple, but they’re very powerful, and very key to how the Big Three come to their decisions. 

KC: And that’s a big issue that I wanted to talk to you about, how these rankings have been gaining importance over the last 10 to 15 years. And how that importance is altering the system of incentives that we live by as academics and that get constructed for us by the university in its role of promoting the university. 

MS: Rankings are our products, they’re mainly media products. But they’re the moneymaking ventures that we have in many ways acquiesced to. What I think that means is… I look at it just in the space of my career. I think about when I started as an undergrad and rankings weren’t so powerful. I started off at a small college, didn’t have money. Got a good education and went on to U of A, and Carlton, and the University of Toronto. And now I talk to young people who feel embarrassed unless they’re going to UBC, or unless they’re going to U of T. 

There’s this real sense of failure if you’re not going to a top ranked school. And so, I think that’s a problem, but what I see among faculty is that we are starting to change our incentive structure to match media metrics. Things like, I remember being told “Don’t write books, you need to write articles. That’s what counts.” Okay, why does that count? Has that always been the case? No, it hasn’t. And that creates a real disadvantage in areas of scholarship that are more book focused. And then in a sense says to them “Well, if you want to be seen as productive, you’re going to need to change how you do your scholarship.” 

I think it has incentivized fast scholarship at a time when society and the world is dealing with a climate crisis, when we’re dealing with mass misinformation. Academics play a special role in saying “Whoa, let’s slow down and actually do our research. Let’s not be part of constantly commenting 24/7 without having done our homework.” I think that we have to look at where the concept of mediatization comes in. And that we are in a sense becoming more like media companies, more like news outlets in how we do our research, and ask what that means for society. 

KC: You mentioned that in your experience, before you started academic work, you saw the effect that media has on policy making and decision making. But is your sense that universities should somehow be spared from that wave of mediatization that seems to be infecting all areas of life? And if so, what would be the benefits of that?

MS: I think it’s good when academics engage with media. But that’s different than mediatization. I engage quite often with journalists and do a lot of interviews, and I think that’s important as a way of expanding conversations because when I talk to media it challenges me to know my stuff. Being challenged by people that aren’t academics enriches my research. 

But mediatization is really getting at how an institution comes to operate based on media business logics. Do I think universities should be spared? I think it’s essential that universities are the one place where the public can get research that is not based on a profit motive. 

I think something that’s often forgotten is that when we’re looking at rankings, we’re not looking at how universities acquire their money. And one thing about top ranked universities that is similar is they’re wealthy. They have huge endowments. But looking at why they’re wealthy, why they’ve got that money, and whether that money is being used in the public interest. 

A really good example of this is Big Pharma. When universities get more and more money from Big Pharma, what does that mean for the kind of research that ends up being used by our doctors and by our policymakers? That’s where I think rankings have an influence not just on us as academics, but on society more generally.

KC: What are the ways to check that force or at least be more aware of it? And how do we build our universities so they are more resistant to and less enamored by rankings and media influences?

MS: I think knowing we’re all influenced regardless of whether we have a PhD or not is a good start. Media education is a lifelong process. I think it’s by having awareness and asking how is this affecting our institutions; and how is this affecting us now; and how do we, as academics, look at our own institutions so we can be more relevant and legitimate outside of academia when sharing our research. 

I think as academics we could do things to say “These rankings are absurd.” Not to say we don’t want to be evaluated or that we don’t want people challenging us from outside the university. I actually think we need more of that. 

Listen to the full episode below, and make sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.