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Aug 14 2013

Signs & portents

The Times has released their rankings of the world reputation for various universities. The news is rather depressing.

Overall, the US continues to dominate the rankings, with seven of the top 10 places and a total of 76 institutions in the top 200 – one more than last year and 45 more than any other nation. The UK has 31 representatives, followed by the Netherlands with 12.

But the US’ dominance of the rankings masks a picture of decline.

Although the US ultra-elite at the summit of the rankings have generally managed to consolidate their positions – with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology rising two places to fifth and the University of California, Berkeley moving from 10th to ninth – many more American institutions fell than climbed the table.

“If you only give a casual glance at the top 200, you’re likely to think it’s just a round-up of the usual suspects,” says Ruby. “Yes, many of the big names of US higher education head the list – the ‘super-brands’ still dominate, and they will continue to do so while they attend to core business and protect their image as elite research-based institutions.

“But when you look more closely, most of the flagship US public universities are slipping down.”

How can this be? Slipping? Us? I believe it.

And that’s exactly what’s been happening, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Public universities and colleges in nearly every state have seen their state funding decline sharply. Nationwide, states are on average spending 28 percent less this year than they did in 2008, a decrease of $2,353 per student. As a result, colleges and universities have had to raise tuition, make changes that undermine educational quality, or usually both.

Not surprisingly, the changing position of American universities mirrors the larger political economy of the United States: a few “super-brands” at the top (which educate the sons and daughters of the world’s elite) continue to stay at the top while most of the others (which are supposed to educate the children of the American working-class) are falling behind, both nationally and internationally.

Meanwhile, our Republican masters will consider all this a good thing, and propose more cuts to put those eggheads in their place, and consider more demands to include religious dogma in our science classes, and replace objective sources of information with more right-wing think tanks that give them the answers they want to hear.

29 comments

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  1. 1
    David Wilford

    It’s not just the past four years that state funding of public universities has been cut, it’s the past thirty. Combine that with increased enrollment and it’s no surprise that tuition and fees have risen every year for decades.

  2. 2
    Pierce R. Butler

    Some years ago, a friend of mine was looking for a research position. She roamed around the US and checked in at several schools, all of which were quite interested in hiring her (among other reasons, she had an MD and a PhD).

    Ultimately, she chose Harvard – but not because of their ranking in somewhat contrived comparisons such as this. They were the only ones who asked her, in about so many words, “What are your goals and how can we help you reach them?”

    Maybe that’s why they have and hold the top standing…

  3. 3
    magistramarla

    What I’ve been seeing seems to be a push toward making state universities into glorified vocational schools. They keep talking about needing strong programs in majors that will provide “good incomes” for the students, while wanting to cut anything that might seem to be “liberal”, such as art and literature.

    The community colleges near where I live have increased their vocational programs, while such programs have been cut from the high schools. The excuse for that was that it was to avoid the “elitism” of having disadvantaged and minority students shuttled into vocational education. I’m now wondering whether the end-game was to make those vocational programs into for-profit programs, rather than providing them for free on the high school level.

  4. 4
    magistramarla

    Pierce,
    My daughter had much the same experience in 2000. She had just graduated from Cal Tech with a BS and a Masters, and was sought after by some of the top PHD programs.
    She asked each department that interviewed her the same question – “Why should I choose your program over the other schools that I’m considering?” Both Harvard and MIT gave her the same snooty answer – “Because it’s Harvard/MIT, that is all that needs to be said”.
    When she asked the same question at Duke, she was told that she should join their department because they felt that she was a good fit for their team and that the people interviewing her felt that the research that she had already done at Cal Tech was a great background for the research that they felt she could do at Duke. She chose Duke for her second Masters and her PHD, and was happy with her choice.

    The interesting thing is that even though our daughter was educated at several elite schools, we are a middle-class family. In fact, I grew up on welfare and used scholarships and grants to work my way out of poverty. Cal Tech was so enthusiastic about our daughter’s potential that they guaranteed her a spot, whether she could afford it or not. We were never expected to pay any of her college expenses, and she wound up with only a small student loan debt, which she easily paid off while still a post-doc at NYU.

    Today our daughter works for the NSF, concentrating on bringing more women and minorities into STEM programs.

  5. 5
    robnyny

    It’s at least thirty years ago that the Wisconsin legislature made the decision that UW-Madison would be changed from a major national/international university to a regional one. Too many foreigners, too many out of state students, all benefitting from Wisconsin taxpayer dollars. And the legislature succeeded.

  6. 6
    naturalcynic

    We still have our priorities. 25 of the top 25 college football and basketball teams are American.

  7. 7
    nathanaelnerode

    These appear to be a matter of perception.

    Within academia, Harvard has an genuinely bad reputation — as a school where you simply can’t get a decent college education, because they don’t bother to have professors teach the undergraduate courses at all. A school where you go just to print “Harvard” on your resume. A school which does its best to admit people who could have succeeded without going to college, in order to cover up the fact that Harvard doesn’t really teach anything. A school which then mixes in unqualified “legacy” students in order to give them the same stamp on their resume, so as to confuse any future employers. And, of course, a school where they pay large amounts of money to professors who are already famous, to lend their names to the institution, by coming to Harvard and not teaching.

    What the hell is Harvard doing at the top of the rankings? I generally assume that a Harvard diploma means “Was bright enough to get into Harvard”, which means something, but I also assume that the person with the Harvard diploma didn’t actually get a college education — although he or she might have been bright enough to teach themselves a great deal out of the Harvard libraries.

    The fact that Harvard has this high a ranking indicates that the ranking is a popularity contest and has nothing to do with anything related to education.

    Yes, I’m sure that there are major problems with US universities, from *other* sources of evidence. But I don’t see how you can get that out of a ranking which is giving blatantly useless results.

  8. 8
    machintelligence

    What I’ve been seeing seems to be a push toward making state universities into glorified vocational schools. They keep talking about needing strong programs in majors that will provide “good incomes” for the students, while wanting to cut anything that might seem to be “liberal”, such as art and literature.

    Don’t you think this might be a response to the number of unemployed and underemployed PhDs out there? It is equally bad at the bachelors degree level. In the current job market, what can you do with a degree in art history?
    I admit it is absurd to teach bricklaying or carpentry at the community college level, but if you don’t have an entry into a union apprenticeship program where can you learn these skills? The current paradigm is that every high school graduate should attend college.

  9. 9
    cag

    As to Harvard, let me just drop a few names:

    Nathaniel Jeanson
    Virginia Heffernan
    Eben Alexander

    And that’s just the first few entries of a Google search.

  10. 10
    anuran

    It’s even worse at the primary and secondary school level. The union and the non-represented bargaining unit for other staff where my wife works agreed to ten days unpaid furlough for everyone to slow down staff cuts to the point where the schools could continue to function

  11. 11
    Géraldine Van Der Auwera

    Not to dismiss the possibility that US institutions are indeed slipping, but why not consider the interpretation that this may be a sign that other countries’ institutions are improving themselves?

  12. 12
    wpjoe

    State funding reductions year after year have left my state univ looking for cost savings and money-making methods. Undergrad courses are getting cut (particularly science lab classes) and new master’s or capstone programs are being added. So instead of getting a comprehensive program during the normal 4yr college career, you need to spend another year or two for a special program that makes the univ some money. I’m not blaming the univ. The legislature has prevented tuition increases while decreasing state funding. Since the univ has been cutting staff through the years of ever-decreasing funding, what would you expect the univ to do?

  13. 13
    Rich Woods

    Overall, the US continues to dominate the rankings, with seven of the top 10 places and a total of 76 institutions in the top 200 – one more than last year and 45 more than any other nation. The UK has 31 representatives, followed by the Netherlands with 12.

    I was about to get all jingoistic and point out how greater a ratio of top universities the UK has for its population size than does the US, but then I looked up the population of the Netherlands. We should move.

  14. 14
    greg1466

    I was thinking along the same lines as Rich (#13). So we have 38% of the top 200 universities in the world. What percentage of the total universities do we have?

  15. 15
    Alex the Pretty Good

    I can’t help but feel a little satisfaction that my Belgian Alma Mater seems to be climbing in these lists, even more in actual ranking (jumps of 10 positions per year) than in reputation.

    But I’m honestly feeling sorry for people in the US. Seeing how so much potential can be destroyed by political asshole-isness … is just saddening.

    I honestly wonder when the direction of the brain drain will switch … from into the US to out of the US … if that isn’t happening already (are there any stats on that?)

  16. 16
    DLC

    Because ignorance is bliss for those who wish to control the world, and to shove us backward into the times before the enlightenment.

  17. 17
    sharkjack

    I didn’t even know we had 12 universities.
    Let’s see, Amsterdam has 2, then there’s Delft, Eindhoven, Utrecht, Groningen, Maastricht, Leiden, Wageningen, Rotterdam, ah there’s Nijmegen as well. I need to look up the rest *goes and looks up list*

    Meh, the rest are superspecialised like business school or theology (catholic theology has a seperate university in Utrecht, go figure) or university colleges, which are often geared at segwaying you into a master at one of the other big universities. So really, we’ve got 11 real universities and 12 of them are in the top. I had access to the 2012 data and that had only the 11 universities I mentioned in it’s top 200. I’m not sure which of the other ones managed to climb to the top, but it’s not one that people tend to know about.

    Since all universities in the Netherlands are at a comparable level, choice is often narrowed down by the subject of study (since unless you do university college you specialise immediately) and what university/town you like best in terms of atmosphere.

  18. 18
    Jadehawk

    we’ve got 11 real universities and 12 of them are in the top.

    that’s just beautiful.

    anyway, if i were a believer in such lists, I’d actually have to re-sort my Graduate-school application list; I had Cornell and Brown as the “famous universities with great reputation, to apply to in the unlikely even they’ll say yes”, but according to that I would have to switch out Brown for Urbana-Champaign (which the evn. soc. professor here has been encouraging me to do anyway; except I don’t actually wanna stay in the US cuz this place kinda sucks, and increasingly so)

  19. 19
    Frenzie

    @17, sharkjack

    I’m not sure which of the other ones managed to climb to the top, but it’s not one that people tend to know about.

    A quick check shows the one you conspicuously left out, Universiteit Twente, at #187.

    @18, Jadehawk

    that’s just beautiful.

    And also false. Presumably it’s 12 out of 12, but I’m not going to repeat sharkjack’s mistake.

  20. 20
    sharkjack

    Yeah, I somehow missed Twente. My bad.

  21. 21
    brasidas

    Boo my old college is only number 14!

    Interesting that the US, with 5 times the population and 7 times the GDP of the UK has barely twice as many top colleges. The Netherlands is really remarkable with a population and GDP 5% of that of the US yet it has 12 of the top colleges.

  22. 22
    Frenzie

    @20, sharkjack
    No worries.

  23. 23
    Jadehawk

    And also false. Presumably it’s 12 out of 12, but I’m not going to repeat sharkjack’s mistake.

    did they excise your humor gland or something? obviously 12 out of 11 is false; it’s impossible. that’s the beautiful part.

  24. 24
    Frenzie

    It’s obviously not impossible, given that there are more universities than just the dozen “proper” universities. ;) Or perhaps a college might’ve managed to find itself a spot on the list—I don’t know how liberally the term university was applied. For that matter, one could envision a scenario with just about any number of the “proper” universities. These would all be amusing/impressive/worrisome scenarios, but (un?)fortunately none of them are true. And you’ll have to excuse my humor gland’s reaction to the omission: it did go to the omitted university for a short while, although it moved on to a different university to study different things.

  25. 25
    Gareth

    I believe the Times list recently started including major techical colleges of the sort that might be labeled a Hogere School in the Netherlands. Not saying that this accounts for the 12, but they could be considered if they were attracting overseas students (which I believe some have been trying to do).

  26. 26
    Frenzie

    sharkjack said they checked for the 11 they mentioned, and I checked for the University of Twente, so I think we can safely assume no hogescholen made it onto the list. I merely thought it was worth mentioning the possibility to decreaseincrease confusion.

  27. 27
    Gareth

    Well its still a possiblity for the future as NL attacts more foreign students. Many UK universities are actually rebranded techical colleges (polytechnics as they used to be called). That bloke who designed the iPhone was educated in one (Newcastle afaik).

  28. 28
    Jadehawk

    It’s obviously not impossible

    none of your paragraph is even remotely relevant to the fact that “12 out of 11″ is impossible by definition.

    These would all be amusing/impressive/worrisome scenarios, but (un?)fortunately none of them are true.

    and none of them are what I was referring to, so why bother mentioning them?

    And you’ll have to excuse my humor gland’s reaction to the omission: it did go to the omitted university for a short while, although it moved on to a different university to study different things.

    and this has what to do with me finding “12 out of 11″ hilarious? Do you also give lectures on day-length on other planets when people say they’re amused by someone saying they worked 25 hours a day?

  29. 29
    Frenzie

    @Jadehawk
    Clearly you intended to say something different than I thought you did.

    Do you also give lectures on day-length on other planets when people say they’re amused by someone saying they worked 25 hours a day?

    I’d love for you to swoop in and do the honors. Or in other words, why the hell not?

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