Will Rankings Ever Change Higher Education? A Short History of a Long Shot

A recent article published in Inside Higher Education (IHE) has reported on a 'call for change' in business schools by 21 academics, arguing that organisations within higher education should not be ranked in simple number order, and that the rankings themselves are biased in favour of traditional postgraduate course delivery.

The piece is interesting as it argues not for an alternative ranking, but for a number of tools and resources that would enable better decision-making. This includes the release and sharing of data that would promote a more democratic approach and support prospective students in making more informed choices about their business schools.

This is not the first such protest, and it certainly won't be the last.

I have worked in publishing in various forms for nearly 20 years, and for the last 14 years I have worked for Emerald Publishing, which covers areas such as business, management, education, engineering and other social sciences. Business schools like no other sector in higher education seem to be obsessed by rankings, and this latest call to action is one of a long line for fair, accurate and poignant proposals to change the way they operate. It is likely it will be as unsuccessful as all of its predecessors. The daddy of them all was the book Managers not MBAs by management guru Henry Mintzberg, which called out almost all major business schools for not teaching managers the right skills for their actual job. Rather, Mintzberg argued, they filled their head with theories and rhetoric and left them wholly unprepared for disasters such as the Global Financial Crisis. As such, business school rankings were useless.

In the same year, Harvard Business Review published another take down of the business school establishment in a now legendary article entitled How Business Schools Lost their Way by Warren Bennis and James O’Toole. This paper called for a greater emphasis on business ethics in the curriculum and a move away from traditional MBA subjects. Like Mintzberg, it met with many nods of approval, with barely a single change made by the top business schools desperate to maintain 'quality metrics', and their bottom line. And while business schools stayed true to the traditional MBA rubric, bums kept their places on seats at ever higher annual fees, with the $100k MBA soon to be a reality.

In 2013, another eminence grise of North American business schools, Clay Christensen of Harvard, decided to weigh into the debate with a book on disruption in higher education and a bold prediction in an interview with Wired magazine. I quote, "And then I think higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse. Generally, universities are doing very well financially, so they don’t feel from the data that their world is going to collapse. But I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble."

So, in just 12 months it is all going to come crashing down, is it? Hmm.

My favourite 'we're all going to hell in a handcart' article about business schools and rankings is by Roger Martin, a former dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. Published in 2012, he doesn't quite say everyone is doomed, but looks at the narrow research published in that most elite ranking list, the FT 45 (now expanded to a dizzying 50 journals). He reckons – and it really is back of a cigarette packet stuff – that the annual cost of 'unactionable research' in those journals (for instance, research that does not actually benefit anyone in business from knowing) is a whopping $600m. In other words, if those academics had turned their attention to researching something useful for business and were rewarded for it, rather than not quite proving the 17 hypotheses in their theoretical paper, then the world as a whole might be better off.

However, while he was criticised for his maths, Martin did more than most to put his finger on the problem, which was that despite this colossal potential waste of money every year, the structures in place in the business school world and higher education in general mean that change is very difficult to implement. Universities are tied to funding that depends on traditional forms of quality metrics, and publishers try and publish as much of the research deemed as good quality so that universities will pay for access. Arguments, therefore, for new metrics and new tools to identify quality and relevance, will almost inevitably founder as there are few incentives in place to encourage systemic change.

Emerald Publishing is celebrating 50 years in existence in 2017, and it was founded all those years ago by academics at the Bradford School of Management who wanted to ensure journals and articles were published in business and management that were not overly theoretical, and had a grounding in the way business was really done. This year we have started to invest in how to progress the ‘impact agenda’, bringing organisations and academia much closer together by identifying how and why research can be more integrated in their approaches. Hopefully this will support some real change in higher education, however small, and move the debate on from whatever the latest ranking says.

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Simon Linacre

Simon is Head of Business, Management & Economics Journals at Emerald Publishing, has been with Emerald for 14 years. He has direct experience in journal acquisitions, Open Access and bibliometrics, and is currently leading initiatives for the company on journal rankings and research impact. His background is in journalism, and he has himself published in academics journals on the topics of bibliometrics and knowledge transfer. He holds Masters degrees in Philosophy and International Business, and has global experience lecturing to researchers on publishing strategies. Simon currently delivers the ALPSP Introduction to Journal Publishing training course with UCL lecturer Jonathan Newbury.