Competition between universities is not a new thing. In my home state, the bitter rivals are The University of Iowa and Iowa State University. For anyone who wasn’t raised in this particular corner of the world, you may have no idea that this rivalry is anything worth considering or taking a side on. In fact, it would be easy to think that these two institutions were the same university. Or to get Iowa confused with another similar-sounding state in the US. (Quick side note: Iowa is the one with corn, not the one with potatoes!)
These localized rivalries make sense. I’m sure it relates to some old sense of tribalism. Tribes may look very similar to outsiders, but the occupation of neighbouring territories probably leads to disagreements which cause everyone in the area to close ranks.
But, nowadays, we’re seeing a change. Competition between universities is not just local. It is happening on a global scale. Throughout the year, global rankings of universities are released by the Times Higher Education and the US News and World Report with the stated purpose that they ‘allow students to compare universities around the globe’.
When thinking about whether these global rankings make sense or not, I think back to the Iowa rivalry. When I was choosing a university, I looked at five or six institutions that were located not far from where I was raised. The competition between these universities for my application made sense as I could not have applied to attend any university in the world. Location was an important factor, not to mention my preferred course of study, the university faculty and the fees (which are less at local universities because they offer ‘in-state’ versus ‘out-of-state’ tuition). Why would I look at the ratings of institutions around the world? As a student, I’m confused about what these global rankings accomplish, if anything.
The existing critical research on this topic points to the consequences of higher education behaving as a marketplace. Global university rankings encourage a culture of comparison and competition within and between institutions (Ball and Youdell, 2008) and this not only inhibits opportunities for collaborative knowledge production, but also transforms the nature of inter-university student relations (Brown, Lauder, Ashton, Yingje & Vincent-Lancrin, 2007).
For the project that this blog is a part of, our group of doctoral researchers from universities in Chile, England and Sweden met for the first time in April 2017. I realized then that our universities were all competing at an international level, but that we, as students, were not competitors at all.
We all research a subject that we feel passionate about but each in our own way. The way we approach our own research has connections to other staff and students at our universities, and to the culture of the countries where we live, work and study. The research of any individual would be very different if conducted at another university in another location. So, there is no way to objectively compare. For any attempt at objective comparison ignores the significance of context.
But the ‘located knowing’ (Code, 2014) of each doctoral researcher has opened windows to things I never knew I didn’t know. When we sat down to work together for the first time, I heard stories from ‘insiders’ — from researchers fully immersed in their own cultural, political, historical and educational communities.
In collaboration rather than competition, we are all able to expand our own understanding. Looking at similarities and differences of experience, we are able to create knowledge that is rich, contextually sensitive and offers a wider view of the world.
This is why our project is important. Through our work between contexts, we will act as translators of our research for our participants, the public and each other. And, as we negotiate ‘a space between’, in which transnational knowledge is produced, we hope to develop our sociological imaginations as emerging scholars. In this regard, comparison will be transformational for all involved.
So, in response to the question ‘Are you a Hawk or a Cyclone?’, my answer is…
Neither. I went to WIU. And, just to confuse the issue, the “I” isn’t for Iowa. 😀
Ball S J and Youdell D (2008) Hidden Privatisation in Public Education. Brussels: Education International.
Brown P, Lauder H, Ashton D, Yingje W & Vincent-Lancrin S (2008) Education, globalisation and the future of the knowledge economy. European Educational Research Journal, 7(2), 131-156.
Code L (2014) Feminist Epistemology and the Politics of Knowledge: Questions of Marginality in M Evans, C Hemmings, M Henry, H Johnstone, S Madhok, A Plomien and S Wearing (eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Feminist Theory. London: SAGE Publications (pp. 9-25).
Image from Quality Distributing LLC where you can get your own “House Divided” doormat!