Australian Universities Hire "Rankings Managers"
Remember the tide of recent articles announcing Australia’s notable performance in the higher education ranks?
Well, there may be a traceable— and somewhat shady— reason for the trend.
Inside Higher Ed reported yesterday that a number of Australian universities are paying $100,000 a year to employ full-time “rankings managers.” These officials maintain relationships with ranking agencies to “maximize” or “optimize” their schools’ positions in the rankings.
The University of New South Wales recently advertised for a “manager of strategic reputation,” while La Trobe University was reported seeking a “manager of institutional rankings.”
David Morrison, Murdoch University’s deputy vice chancellor, explained the creation of this new role as a guard against oversights made by rankings agencies.
When he transferred from the University of Western Australia in 2012, he couldn’t understand why Murdoch wasn’t in the Times Higher Education rankings, and discovered that it was simply because the data weren’t being submitted.
This year Murdoch was ranked in the 301-350 band.
Morrison is in the final stages of instituting a single data analytics group headed by a director to ensure the right information is sent to ranking agencies and Excellence in Research for Australia.
Les Field, the deputy vice chancellor at New South Wales, agrees with the move, claiming the position is an essential factor in ensuring accurate information is sent to annual data collections and displayed correctly in the rankings.
“It’s essential to have a team dedicated to getting our numbers right as well as providing the analysis on which we can direct the research effort into the future,” Field said.
American universities are fairly well-known for manipulating the rankings, but until now, Australian institutions have let the data unfold as it would.
Critics claim that ulterior motives may be driving the new role.
Rankings expert Simon Marginson said he was concerned that such positions highlighted a focus on marketing rather than enhancing performance.
“What I don’t like about these jobs is the apparent focus on manipulating the rankings game, rather than lifting the substance of university performance,” said Marginson, a scholar at the University of Melbourne’s Center for the Study of Higher Education.
“This smacks more of maximizing the presentation of data to rankings agencies than on improving performance as such. It is little more than an exercise in specialized marketing and perhaps not the best use of a full-time job.”
Whether or not the move is right, its creation signifies the growing importance of rankings in influencing research and teaching plans.
But several administrators have expressed concern that the professionalized management of rankings may corrupt university strategies, inspiring marketing efforts rather than efforts to boost the substance of an institution’s performance.
Keith Nugent, La Trobe’s deputy vice chancellor, said that said while institutions needed to present themselves as best they could, they should avoid letting rankings determine strategy.
The rationale behind the role, Murdoch agrees, was to ensure the best information was put forward “without blithely going forward and letting the ranking direct what we do.”
But the rankings should inform, not define, a national teaching strategy.
“Rankings are an input into strategy, they don’t drive it,” he said.