Uni League Tables- What about a Metric that measures Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom
We now have a confusion of league tables seeking to rate universities. Global rankings of universities, such as the Times Higher Education or THE World University Rankings, the QS World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities, claim to identify the ‘best’ universities in the world and then list them in rank order, and they are enormously influential. Each of these rankings have very different criteria for placing institutions .This accounts for the very different results each ranking provides, with some universities doing well in one and poorly in another. The variations can be extreme. Although, to be fair , there is some consistency at the very top of the tables. They have flaws ,of course. A potential flaw lies in their focus on universities as a single entity, neglecting to appreciate that different faculties at universities have different strengths and weaknesses. Some universities excel in specific subjects – so it’s foolish to ignore these institutions simply because their overall ranking is not particularly high. But there may be another rather fundamental flaw. And its got to do with the central purpose of universities.
At a recent Pearson debate on the purpose of universities, Ben Hughes, the vice principal at Pearson College London suggested that one view is that ‘The purpose of a university is to be the guardian of reason, inquiry and philosophical openness, preserving pure inquiry from dominant public opinions.’
It is a self-evident truth that advancing ideas and learning through debate, in pursuit of truth, is a critical, indeed crucial , part of what universities and colleges do, and have always done, and therefore should be nurtured and protected. Freedom of speech is important in all settings, but especially in universities, where education and learning are advanced through dialogue and debate. It underpins academic freedom. Universities are places where ideas are developed, a diverse range of interesting–and sometimes controversial–topics should be debated. Some people may be upset and offended by such clashes, but arguably universities are not doing their job if at some point students arent upset. So,the suppression of speech is a threat to the universities’ very identity as institutions dedicated to the production and dissemination of knowledge. But there are concerns that, although there appears to be no evidence of a systematic campaign to undermine freedom of speech and expression, and academic freedom in universities , some institutions appear to be at the very least careless, cavalier and inconsistent in their role as guardians of freedom of speech. It is worth mentioning Oxbridge in this respect. Both universities are beginning to develop reputations for being less than assiduous in protecting and advancing these freedoms in their institutions, instead , favouring knee jerk responses to social media campaigns that attack and victimise individual academics and the very freedoms they are responsible for protecting. In the process debates are shut down, justice and fairness largely ignored.
Both Oxford and Cambridge have a reputation to protect and their high rankings, too. But this seems to have no impact on the way they behave in this vital area. Perhaps they need an incentive to behave much better. So, here is a suggestion. That a new metric is introduced in rankings that measures institutions on how effective they are at protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom . When I put this to Phil Baty of THE, he responded by asking me how this might be measured. It cant be beyond the ken of the experts at THE, or elsewhere in other ranking organisations, to design algorithms that do this fairly. After all ,there are many international rankings that rate countries on their Human Rights records , the Freedom of their Press, Quality of Life, Investment environment etc, why not for institutions?
Already Libertarian magazine Spiked ranks universities on how far they are upholding or restricting free speech, using a traffic light system.(although their methodology has been criticised)
If this were to happen , Oxbridge would, almost certainly ,drop out of the top ten. And, for that matter , Chinese institutions. They are currently rising rapidly up the rankings, across the board- fuelled by massive investment. Given that they have a growing reputation for being increasingly illiberal,strong-arming academics particularly who criticise China, they would plummet ,equally rapidly, one suspects, down the rankings. Perhaps this is why it hasn’t yet happened? But, I reckon its time for some carrots and sticks