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University rankings can be useful. They can also be used inappropriately to discriminate inaccurately and unjustly.

Dr. Mark Hauser at Harvard University – consistently amongst the world’s highest ranked universities – was found guilty of scientific miscounduct, fraudulent science in 2012 – an example of why the university a person is employed at is a poor metric of their credibility or future performance (source: www.nytimes.com)

To students making enrolment decisions, or governments deciding how to invest in institutions, a university’s rank represents the relative and average quality of its measured parts – staff or student achievement, research output and influence, teaching quality, or resources. It is a population- or institution-level metric only, not a measure of any of its individuals – duh, right?!

But I have observed a rise in academic profiling – university ranks sometimes also being used to discriminate amongst individuals.

The differences between the ranks of universities are small compared to the range in the quality of their parts. Some departments, staff, and students perform poorly while others outperform at all institutions. A university’s rank, therefore, is a poor measure or predictor of the quality of any individual that works or studies there.

Why, then, have I developed the impression that university rankings are increasingly being used to evaluate the merits of individuals and the value of their supporting referees by committees awarding scholarships to students, or sabbatical leave and promotion to academics?

Sir Paul Callaghan GNZM FRS FRSNZ (1947 – 2012) had his DPhil from Oxford University – ranked 2nd in the world – but chose to work in New Zealand at Victoria University. Victoria University’s world ranking dropped 28 places this year to 265th. Amazing people choose to work in much less ‘amazing’ universities.

At first encounter this practice seemed reasonable. Highly ranked universities generally employ and enrol more talented staff and students, are better funded, and maintain better reputations. It seems useful, therefore, to value individuals at or from those institutions relatively highly.

BUT… using a university’s rank to evaluate an individual’s application or support is like racial or sexual profiling (see text box below).

A person can be at a lower ranked university but be an international leader. Academics at some of the world’s best universities do some very bad work. Many graduates from the world’s top universities perform poorly, despite their greater opportunities. Some very talented people graduate from the world’s lowest ranked universities.

Sir Don McKinnon ONZ GCVO – alumni of one of New Zealand’s lowest ranked universities (Valuation and Farm Management, Lincoln University,1960-61) but also previously Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, and Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand. How unimportant is the rank of one’s university?

Most people choose to work or study at a university largely for reasons other than the institution’s rank. Many choose universities near their families, or in their communities or home countries. People all over the world move from higher to lower ranked universities – actively choosing, for example, to make a contribution to the future of their country or community of birth, or raise their families in places familiar. Many choose or return to lower ranked universities because they aspire to achieve in ways that cannot be measured by the rank of the institution they work or study at.

I understand that committees formed to award student scholarships or academic promotion have a difficult job. They are deciding the winners and losers with far-reaching consequences for individuals. Using a rank of the university that a referee is writing from, or student graduated from, to judge their value simplifies their decision. The contemporary Performance-based Research Fund, amongst other ranking systems, and the competitive culture developing amongst institutions encourages the practice.

But using an institutional address to evaluate an individual is academic profiling. Academic profiling is not a reliable predictor of individual performance, and it is unethical. It is also bizarre, or perhaps just laziness, because applicants provide an extraordinary level of individual detail for committees to evaluate their suitability and merit. The university address they, or their references, come from is rendered redundant.

I hope my impression that academic profiling is on the increase is incorrect or, at least, exceptional. I’d be interested in hearing from colleagues about how often they encounter it. I have encountered two examples in as many months.

Next time someone says to you an applicant’s university isn’t good enough, or a reference less valuable because it comes from someone at a lower-ranked university, suggest politely that they do their job and evaluate people, not their address.

profiling text box

Postscript - written from the university ranked 8th in the world while on sabbatical from the university ranked 265th. I look forward to returning to my home university at the end of my sabbatical for reasons unrelated to its rank.