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Pandemic pushes universities to rethink excellence

Pandemic pushes universities to rethink excellence

29 April 21
 | 9 MINS

With higher education rankings led by for-profit corporations and scientific publishing turning higher profit margins than Apple, Google or Amazon, universities should challenge how success is measured as they work for public good.

A central issue explored in this project is the tension between equity and quality in higher education. A key message from our research is that higher education institutions need to rethink “excellence”. This is important if NUI Galway is to take its avowed mission as a university “for the public good” seriously.

The current pandemic context spotlights the public good mission, a reflection aided by new thinking about transformative, mission-based public investments. The proposal to rethink excellence also addresses NUI Galway’s other strategic priorities of respect, openness and sustainability in an integrated way.

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with excellence, meaning striving for the highest level of quality and performance, there is an urgent need to promote more multidimensional conceptualisations of quality in higher education and to avoid falling into narrow conceptions of excellence. Such thinking about excellence is over-reliant on global measurement, rankings and league tables which drive excellence towards zero-sum contests. They intensify competition and “scarcify” respect and reputation worldwide.

This machinery of excellence is scientifically questionable and involves costly and wasteful use of publicly-funded knowledge, resources, time and effort, with a disproportionate burden falling on the least-resourced academics and disciplines.

World academic excellence rankings are dominated by two for-profit corporations which drive academics and higher education institutions to over-produce and hyper-compete.

Academic publishing has become dominated by five global scientific publishing corporations which redefine scientific excellence in terms of gold, platinum or diamond payment-models for “opening” access to scientific communication.

The pressure to publish more and more to demonstrate excellence substitutes quantity for quality and causes an unsustainable upward pressure on academic work and costs.

Scientific publishing has become an outstandingly profitable business, with higher profit margins than Apple, Google, or Amazon, even though viable lower cost and more socially progressive models of open access exist.

The pressure to publish more and more to demonstrate excellence substitutes quantity for quality and causes an unsustainable upward pressure on academic work and costs. The profit strategies of scientific ranking and publishing pose serious obstacles to scientific advancement as a cooperative enterprise, blocking longer-term benefits to the public, in the pursuit of a profitable, but highly unethical business.

Traditional procedures of quality assurance in higher education relied on self-evaluation and peer-review, with formative learning, improvement and scientific advancement being the major objectives. Peer-review is a scientific convention, rendering voluntary expert labour as a service to the field, according to collaborative academic conventions.

Recent decades have seen increasing demands for greater public accountability for higher education, in a context of diminishing public investment, higher demands for teaching and an increasingly desperate search for international student revenue, research and philanthropic funding.

The high-trust environment oriented towards learning and knowledge advancement has given way to low-trust mechanisms combining public accountability with private justification for fees, and diminished interest in quality improvement, according to a 2013 UNESCO report.

The conception of quality assurance may fall back into alignment with minimal standards for accreditation and standardisation. The latter is a logic that entered quality assurance from manufacturing – to ensure that industrial products meet a “standard” and are not defective. This conception of standards is obviously ill-suited to the creative activities of research and education, without even taking into consideration the diverse institution types, activities, outcomes and aspirations characteristic to higher education.

Excellence is a component of quality, but when understood too narrowly, it may overshadow broader dimensions of value and neglect important considerations of equity, purpose, inclusion, critical independence and creativity that are necessary for the production of scientific, cultural and public value.

But there is also a lack of consensus on what “public good” and “public value” actually mean, and how higher education institutions should contribute to it. This is unsurprising given the theoretical and political under-emphasis on public goods and the role of government and society in producing them. New Public Goods theory redevelops a theory of public goods to reflect “the public value of public things”, focused on three aspects of public value – democratic involvement, equitable access to goods produced and public benefit.

A New Public Good Approach 

“Excellence” stands for winning in a competitive scenario, leaving the losers behind. Conceptions of “world-class” institutions are rooted in the privileged status accorded to Global North and Eurocentric institutions and conceptions of “world” culture and science.

Competitive reputation, prestige and elitism have always been present in elite universities, Nobel prizes and other forms of reputational competition. However, commercial rankings and publishing exert excessive global pressure on institutions worldwide, forcing them to compete and produce scarcities of reputation. Very often, quantity is mistaken for quality in this competitive environment.

Instead of pursuing excellence, universities with a public good mission might think more carefully and clearly about their mission and diversify their pursuit of quality in order better to serve the public good. This would be understood in terms of a transformative mission to democratise knowledge and engage the public; to deliver equitable solutions to public problems; and to ensure public benefits in terms of safety, ethics, well-being and sustainability.



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