What do International League Tables Mean for the Humanities?

The rise of international university league tables has taken many of us by surprise. Not long ago we seemed to be safe enough dismissing them as lacking credibility; now they make the national news. University leaders are taking them very seriously indeed – whatever they might say if their institution happens to slide a little – so maybe it’s time that we all thought about what they might mean for academics working at a subject level.

As with national tables, there are several rival international tables: the QS and the Times Higher probably the most influential, though there are others. Their approaches all differ slightly, but centre attention on metrics such as: reputation (among academics, mainly, but also employers), citations, measures of internationalization (e.g. students, staff, co-authorship), and some teaching metrics (e.g. staff-student ratios). Because they measure different things, they produce results that diverge from UK tables: universities within the national top ten can be more than one hundred places apart in the international tables.

I want here to think about how we got here, and then focus on what international tables might mean for the humanities. How might they prompt us to change our behaviour? And what happens if we find their logic pulling us in different directions to the more familiar logic of UK tables?

How did we get here?

A couple of years ago I arrived in Melbourne to find the daily newspapers awash with international league tables. The University of Melbourne had sponsored a wrap-around front-page to the city’s daily broadsheet, to celebrate its place in some table or other; Monash and RMIT were finding their own ways to spin the results. I told a mate who worked at Melbourne that we, in the UK, don’t take these tables seriously. He shrugged.

Australia was perhaps ahead of the game because it doesn’t have a serious internal market, and has too few powerful universities to give national tables much value. More importantly, Australians understood the importance of internationalization. The market for students from Asia is huge for Australian universities. The competition for research resources – and, simply, for visibility, which has always been a bugbear for Australians – was also felt with some urgency.

In the UK, we’ve taken time to catch up. We’ve gone from dismissing international tables, to looking closely while muttering about credibility, to a state of preoccupation. Perhaps this is just us accepting the inevitable: not only are they coming to mean more than UK tables internationally, they probably already mean more than some of our existing brand-identifies, such as ‘Russell Group’. Indeed the fact that some Russell Group members are inside the international top 20 while others are outside the top 400 surely raises questions about its future. Could the international tables eat the Russell Group?

International league tables and the humanities

It is commonly understood that international tables tend to favour big, science-heavy universities. Indeed the lesson to be drawn from the huge success of MIT and Caltech (where they do teach humanities subjects, but very much as a minority exercise) might be that the humanities are something of an irrelevance in this game.

Some of the reasons for this are clear. In particular, citations indices don’t work well for our subjects, given our commitment to monographs over journals and the longer time-span over which our work tends to be read. Nor do we attract the high volumes of international students and staff. Others are perhaps more vague and perceptual: an implicit equation, perhaps, of a university’s success with big scientific advancements (graphene = Manchester, etc.). Certainly these tables lack the essentially egalitarian (in disciplinary terms) structure of UK equivalents. Metrics such as REF results, the NSS and tariff-on-entry place humanities disciplines comfortably alongside STEM.

What about the international subject tables? I’d like to know more about these: particularly how they feed into (or not) the institutional tables. One hypothesis, just from looking at some of the surprises they throw up, is that some humanities units table-surf on the success of their university’s reputation in the sciences. But can the opposite happen? What about a university such as our own, where league-table standings in the humanities are stronger than in STEM?

How might they change our behaviour?

The logic of the international tables is not benign for the humanities. If international success is paramount, why shouldn’t a university pump maximum resources into STEM, using cheap labour in the humanities to bring in a steady stream of student-fee income? That exaggerates the position, but maybe not greatly.

In this context, my question would be: how might we adapt? It seems to me that citation indices are crucial. Perhaps it’s time we stopped grumbling about them, and found a way to make them work for us. The AHRC and our subject associations must have a role to play, but I think it’s also something for individuals to consider. I don’t think that a 30-year-old beginning a career in the humanities will be able to ignore citation indices the way I have been able to do. Internationalization also becomes critical: more international co-authorship; departments that are engaged with the international dimensions of their disciplines.

These shifts might challenge is to rethink our focus on the metrics of national tables. In humanities subjects, we tend to assume that the REF favours single-author publications, and monographs over articles. We’ve never thought much about international co-authorship, and especially not across cultural and language barriers. Maybe we need to think again. And in terms of hiring practices, I’ve found over the years that a REF-focus instils a degree of conservatism, that may work against the interests of developing more boldly international areas (such as, in my department, world literature). I think we now have arguments for thinking a little differently.

These conditions, and these emerging institutional priorities, present challenges for the humanities. We need to understand them: better, indeed, than I do in this initial effort. But we’ve adapted in the past, and we can do so in the future.

Any thoughts?

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