Peter Smith

Publications, Lectures and Other Stuff

University Excellence

Lightly edited rough draft of my own Framework for University Excellence which I first posted on 5 November 2010 [on FB]. Comments would be welcome.

A. Prologue.

1. There are now a variety of world rankings of universities (ARWU, QS, THE, etc.). These have attracted a lot of attention and many universities aspire to improve their ranking.

2. The rankings vary and use different criteria in different ways. This is a sure sign that there is no one way of measuring university excellence.

3. Universities that seek to improve their standing in the world can use these ranking systems but should be conscious of their relative arbitrariness = to join in on a particular ranking system is to ‘play a particular game’. Simultaneously, each university should be thinking what its own criteria of excellence are = there is a good chance that a university that pursues its own goals of excellence will eventually be recognized for its specific excellence.

4. Universities vary enormously in purpose and quality (e.g. mass market production of degree-holders, elite research institutes, liberal arts colleges, etc.).

5. Altho ranking stystems necessarily employ quantitative measures, universities should be wary of reducing the complexity of university excellence to mere numbers. There is always a danger of reifying numbers. Qualitative measures must also be considered.

B. Main areas of university excellence.

1. Teaching.

2. Graduate job placement.

3. Research.

4. Societal impact.

5. Collegiate life.

C. Teaching.

1. Fundamental to what a university does is the teaching of students. This involves both training in particular skills and the development of general intellectual abilities. Some subjects (e.g. accountancy) are far more skill-oriented and other more general (e.g. Social Science). In all cases, the merits of the traditional Liberal Arts curriculum are considerable — the ability to think critically about all matters of importance.

2. Specific measures of a good teaching environment include low average class size (teacher-student ratio) and a large and up-to-date library.

-NB1. Library size (books and periodicals) is a useful and easy measure to make.

-NB2. In the Social Sciences and Humanities libraries must include many old and classic titles as well as the latest volumes.

3. ‘Good’ teaching may be difficult to measure but is certainly evidenced at a qualitative level by the quality of examinations which are set.

4. Student opinions of teachers is NOT a good measure of quality = there are always some students would like easy grades and do not like to be stretched intellectually.

5. Easy grades and grade inflation must be strenuously opposed.

D. Graduate job placement.

1. A successful university will have a high percentage of its graduates finding meaningful employment soon after graduation. If many graduates remain unemployed or have to take jobs for which they are overqualified then the university is probably not doing a very good job in utilizing its human resources. External factors such as the state of the economy are obviously important here however.

2. Although the university should be sensitive to the potential job market of its graduates, it also needs to be sensitive to the complexities of work in the modern economy (e.g. the now common pattern of multiple career changes rather than a single unchanging career; the possibility of new areas of work developing).

3. In the context of 2, while the university can provide programs of study that have very specific job outcomes (e.g. accountancy), it must also develop amongst its students qualities which enable them to function in an uncertain marketplace. These qualities may include creativity, independent thought, integrity & industriousness — and are traditionally associated with the Liberal Arts ideal of education.

-NB. There is a story of a British banker who preferred to employ Philosophy graduates becos he knew that they would be able to think, and the specific knowledge they needed to work in the bank could be gained in-house in a relatively short period of time.

4. There should be effective consultation about employment effectiveness with both alumni and potential employees but with the understanding that not all university programs lead to a specific job field.

E. Research.

1. A good university will provide opportunities for gifted faculty to generate high-quality research. This research can be evaluated in both academic and utilitarian terms — both are good and we should not expect all research to be of both academic and utilitarian value.

2. Academic value may be evaluated in different ways in different disciplines. e.g. In the Sciences, article citation indexes are highly regarded; in the Humanities and Social Sciences, publishing books with academic publishers of high repute. Academics in particular disciplines usually have the best idea of what constitutes quality in their discipline.

NB. Several of the existing university rankings systems are criticized for their pro-science bias = privileging article citation indexes over high quality books is an example of this.

3. Utilitarian research can be evaluated thru successful patent applications, but more particularly by actual adoption by organizations with practical objectives.

F. Societal impact.

1. Universities exist as part of wider society, and as centres of excellence should be expected to contribute to wider social life.

2. At the the most prestigious level, public awards (Nobel Prizes, etc.) are an indication of success, but this is too specialized a measure to be of much practical use (tho I note the University of Manchester now touts itself as having the most Nobels presently on staff [4] of any British university). A more mundane measure of societal impact would be to list the contributions of university faculty and alumni to specific areas of social life.

G. Collegiate life.

1. A good university encourages all its members (faculty, staff, students, alumni) to participate fully in its discussions and debates. A high level of free consultation is highly desirable — but perhaps not always easy to measure.

4 comments on “University Excellence

  1. Gordon Kerr
    January 25, 2013

    Seems fairly general and comprehensive which is the point I think. Your anecdote about the British banker seeking to employ philosophy students seems a little misplaced. I think there is quite a lot of evidence that the major consulting firms and major companies have consistently sought classically trained graduates in such subjects as medieval history, theology and philosophy to join their think tanks and business development teams.

    Similarly, the sections on societal impact and collegiate life seem a little weak. One might have hoped a slightly bolder vision of ” service ” or contribution to the ” betterment of the world” “civic engagement” etc rather than the somewhat obscure reference to ” Nobel Prizes” which are hardly a goal for most universities.

    I like your mild critique about the dangers of reductionism and too much attention being paid to citation indexes. I would have perhaps added even more comments on the unhealthy obsession of publication in obscure journals with only lip service being paid to to teaching quality and standards which rarely count when it comes to tenure and promotion.

  2. icpetermahidol
    January 25, 2013

    Thanks Gordon. These were just a few 1st thoughts. I comment on the Global ranking game in a recent article. I will post a link soon. The Nobel reference is because one of the major ranking agencies uses that as a key index of success.

  3. Lynda Goetz
    January 12, 2017

    As I referred to your YouTube lecture ‘A Short History of University Rankings’ in my article in the Shaw Sheet today, I thought you might be interested in a link to the magazine. Regards Lynda Goetz

    • icpetermahidol
      January 19, 2017

      Thank you. We live in strange times, and traditional university education is under attack from several directions simultaneously. Pity.

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This entry was posted on January 24, 2013 by in Universities.
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