For a while now, university rankings have been intensely debated all over the world. Despite the prevailing sentiment among academics that rankings are harming the academic profession, the actual resistance to this practice is mostly scattered and not much heard, especially at the international level, which is where the most influential of rankings are produced.
Social media platforms are where much of the discontent with rankings can be seen. If one follows the topic, it’s virtually impossible not to come across some of the many critical voices. It was in this context that University Wankings (@UWankings), a Twitter user entirely dedicated to an unapologetic challenge to university rankings, emerged.
Since its creation in September 2018, UWankings has accumulated more than 2.000 followers and generated considerable social media engagement. This should not surprise us: University Wankings are provocative, satirical and often quite funny in their remarks. And, perhaps most of all, they seem very displeased with the whole rankings business.
We’ve been asked, so to clarify:— University Wankings (@UWankings) October 22, 2018
University Wanking (yo͞onəˈvərsədē waNGkiNG) The act of highlighting a university’s institutional performance on higher education league tables, thereby projecting the (mistaken) belief that it represents a comparatively positive achievement.
But what about the UWankings’ backstage, to borrow Goffman’s way of putting it? To understand the thinking behind the initiative a little bit better, I decided to approach them with a couple of questions about the whole thing. Below is what came out of it.
What is “University Wankings” about and what is the rationale behind creating the Twitter account?
Other than the obvious play on words, we defined “university wankings” as the self-congratulating – but conceptually empty – pronouncements that universities make about their performance on rankings and other publicly available metrics. We had long been puzzled by the paradox in contemporary higher education of universities as producers/guardians of rigorous knowledge who simultaneously market themselves with poor quality data.
Rankings and other external “measurements” obviously do tell us something, about research income, citations, graduate employment rates, or student satisfaction et al, but these in themselves do not describe research or teaching quality. They may have some relationship to them, but the tenuousness of the link is studiously ignored by both rankers and the universities that cite them. This observation is a well-worn path and there is a wealth of commentary – and research – on the relative invalidity of these metrics, as well as on how they are nonetheless becoming the currency of university management and strategy (and thus academic practice) worldwide.
The mushrooming of metrics and their influence on student, academic, and other university professionals’ lives is a source of immense frustration to us. It skews discourse, research and teaching agendas, and narrows the social value of higher education. UWankings was partially a move to vent some of that frustration by holding rankers and universities to account, calling them out when they make spurious claims based on metrics. There is a range of serious problems in higher education around inequalities in access and outcomes for both for staff and students, and metrics are related to this, not least because the “top” universities are often the worst offenders. Their high performance and perceptions of their elevated status is based on exclusive entry systems, an unjustifiably skewed relationship with the labour market, and highly competitive, often toxic work cultures. In other words, measurement – and which measures count – are both symptom and cause of much that is wrong in higher education.
University Wankings is anonymous, meaning that the general public does not know who the people behind it are. What lies behind this decision?
We were initially quite nervous about setting up UWankings in that we felt we were doing something “naughty”. We suspect that such is the sensitivity of reputation management (and rankings of course are part of this) that none of our employers would look favourably at this activity. Much of what we say is not very different in content in terms of what we say publicly on an individual basis. However, the anonymity means that we can adopt a punchier, more irreverent tone, which also allows us to call our own universities out if (no, when!) they make outlandish claims. It is interesting to see that there are a lot of other anonymous critical-parody Twitter accounts in HE, and the point is less about who is saying it than the fact that certain things need to be said. We’re only vocalising what a lot of other people are thinking.
As for the tone, this depends on the mood of which of us is tweeting, and what we’re tweeting about. Our preferred option is what the British call “taking the piss”. Sometimes laughter is the only response to the nonsensical language and absurd claims surrounding higher education “excellence”. At other times we feel tired and resigned to the creep of comparative numerisation and the games that we see our universities (and yes, at times ourselves) playing. We are also not infrequently stirred to white hot rage by the inhumanity of doing higher education by numbers. We’re only human, after all.
What does the future hold for the University Wankings?
Rankings aren’t going away, and therefore neither are we. The account picked up a significant following quite quickly and we have obviously touched a nerve. It is clear that academics and other university staff, across disciplinary and national boundaries, are affected by rankings. Their effects make us laugh, cry, rant, and sigh, and it’s good to share this. Reflection and critical thinking are essential functions of higher education, and metrics are as worthy – and ripe – for analysis as any other aspect of the world we live in.
We’re always trawling the Twitterverse and wider news to make fun of – or censure – managerial tripe and of course higher education is awash with it. We’re often sent links or comments to respond to or retweet, and we would like to encourage more of this. Are rankers claiming that some universities – slow-moving beasts at the best of times – are “soaring” or “plummeting” in the rankings from one year to the next? Has a university or business school emerged out of nowhere to be a “world leader in global excellence”? Is your department in the “Top 5” in the region for staff responding to student emails? See it, share it, and we’ll tweet it.
Interviewer: Jelena Brankovic
Jelena Brankovic is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University, Germany. Her research interests are in the sociology of organizations, competition, and global dynamics. You can follow her on Twitter.