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The Top-50: Is This A Place Southampton Wants To Be?

As our members are probably aware, the University has set a strategic goal of achieving a spot in the top 50 in the world university rankings.  On the face of it, this seems an admirable goal; after all, who wouldn’t want our University to be recognised worldwide as a top-notch place to learn and to do research?

However, when we take a closer look, we begin to see how ludicrous this goal would be for our institution.  For comparison, let’s examine Penn State University, currently sitting at 51 in the rankings (just below Brown University and Peking University, which are tied for 49th).  Penn State — which also happens to be my undergraduate alma mater — currently sits on an endowment of $1.52 billion (about £955 million), with net assets of $8.73 billion as of 2010 (about £5.48 billion; Southampton’s net assets last year totalled £330 million by comparison).  Their operating budget last year was over $4.1 billion (approximately £2.56 billion).  Penn State’s research income last year was $780 million (£490 million; compare to Southampton at £93.6 million).  On top of this, the main University Park campus of Penn State has 44,000 students (compared to 23,000 at Southampton); but when you include the other 23 Penn State campuses, the total reaches around 95,000.

So, at number 51 on the rankings, we have an institution dealing in budget numbers far beyond the reach of this institution, educating
nearly four times the number of students, and earning more than 5 times as much research income.  Is this something we can compete with?  Moreover, is this something we *want* to compete with?

I’d argue that we absolutely do not want to get sucked into this kind of competition.  The further we look up the rankings, the worse the
numbers get (Harvard has an endowment of $32 billion, or just over £20 billion!).  There is every indication that these rankings are based upon these silly number games, and very little evidence that they provide any useful information to students looking for a place to study.  Meanwhile, there are institutions that do very well for themselves while abstaining from these prestige competitions entirely.

One of the more notable of these is St John’s College in Annapolis and Santa Fe, which has a remarkable letter on its website from its
presidents ( discussing why they have chosen to abstain entirely from the US News and World Report Rankings.  Here’s a small sample:

“Over the years, St. John’s College has been ranked everywhere from the third tier, to the second, to the first, to the “Top 25” among
national liberal arts colleges. Yet we haven’t changed. Our mission and our methods have been virtually constant for almost 60 years. We would rather be ourselves and have our college speak for itself, than be a part of this fluctuating outside analysis. The distinctiveness of each individual college and the diversity among them tend to be lost in a scale of “best-good-worse.” Research university or small liberal arts college? Religious affiliation or pre-professional training? Core curriculum or a multitude of majors? America’s colleges offer all of these. A college that is exactly right for a particular student– in its mission, mode of teaching, location, moral or religious
character– might receive a lower rank in the survey than a college which would not suit the needs of that student.”

I’d argue that this is the problem with university rankings: they attempt to quantify an experience that, by its very nature, is different for every student.  Our placement on an arbitrary table, decided by constantly-changing criteria, is not an adequate measure of the incredible variety and diversity present at this institution. Even if we were to reach the heady heights of the Top 50, there is still no guarantee that the following year would not see us displaced — and not due to a fall in research outputs, or student survey numbers, but simply due to a small change in the ranking criteria.

Where we certainly can, and should, compete however is in the area of the student experience.  This is an area where Penn State also excels and has excelled for many years.  Penn State has an alumni association  with 500,000 members or so, the largest in the world, and out of those, more than 160,000 pay dues every year to be a part of that association.  Think about it — 160,000 people paying money to the university, every year, simply to retain an association with their alma mater, to get a newsletter, and maybe a discount on football tickets.

Dedication and pride like that doesn’t come from arbitrary and constantly-fluctuating ranking positions.  It comes from having a fantastic student environment, top facilities, excellent teaching, and efforts to build a community that fosters cohesion, trust, and student identity.  These are all areas where Southampton absolutely *can* compete.  We can develop this institution into a nourishing and edifying community for our students — a place that remains with them, even when they go off to other institutions or into the workforce. These things do not require budgets in the billions to accomplish — they require dedication, support for our facilities and our staff, and the creation of an environment that fosters learning and a sense of community.

I worry that the focus on rankings takes us away from focusing on things that can truly bring character and reputation to our university.  They make us focus on budgets, surpluses and ‘economic impact’, rather than student satisfaction, staff development and retention, and community support and cohesion.  Rankings may bring us applause from University Deans, Presidents and Vice-Chancellors, but what brings the same from students are other things entirely. Likewise, creating a dynamic and challenging learning environment for students rests on giving our teaching staff the support and development opportunities they need to give every lecture their full attention, instead of being forced to worry about rankings, research output requirements, promotion panels and inter-departmental politicking (all things that an all-encompassing focus on numbers and rankings exacerbates).

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t want to suggest that we turn ourselves into Penn State, Hampshire Campus.  Not to mention that, as recent events have shown, Penn State is not immune to rankings fever — as evidenced by the disgraceful behaviour of their football coaches and related members of staff who sacrificed even their basic morality to push that football programme to the top.  But I do think the comparison is illuminating.  As a student at Penn State, I never knew nor cared what our ranking was — nor, I suspect, do the overwhelming majority of students at Southampton.  What I cared about, and what our students care about, is what they experience day-to-day: how their learning is supported and nourished; how their facilities look and feel; what sort of opportunities they have to make friends, foster relationships and build connections for the future; and the enthusiasm and dynamism of their lecturers.

This University is blessed with a energetic and diverse student body and fantastic teachers and researchers, all of whom want this institution to grow and be recognised.  So let’s work together to build that recognition in a real, sustainable way — one built on making this a supportive and inclusive environment for learning and discovery.  If we do that, top-flight students and staff will come here in droves and continue to do so — regardless of what the rankings say.


Eric Silverman

Southampton UCU President

One Comment

  1. […] much less consensus about the feasibility of getting into the top 50 world ranking (see Eric’s previous blog post about this), but staff genuinely want to do a good job – whatever their level and role). What […]

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