Something rank about ratings

The only useful thing about university rankings is that they illuminate something essential about the contradictions that accompany the process of globalising neoliberal governance.

Universities have been enmeshed in this process ever since they started thinking of themselves as institutions struggling to retain fidelity to time and place.

The developmentalist critique of rankings — that they contain no criteria for measuring whether or not a university makes a difference to the wider community in which it is situated — is well-worn and part of every press release that confirms the legitimacy of rankings by responding to them.

The fact is that most universities want to have their cake and eat it too: the same university managers who invoke this argument when they complain about the Harvard-normativity of rankings are also committed to the securitisation of our campuses, which is legitimised with reference to “reputation” and “good standing” — phrases that, because of their political malleability, are but local inflections of the same normativity at work in the pursuit of “excellence”.

This pursuit of “excellence” leaves an indelible imprint on scholarly research. Centralised ethics and events oversight have come to assume the functions of gatekeeping, surveillance, security and public relations management, in effect excluding the very voices that have highlighted the need for decolonised education.


Some campuses have gone so far as to implement full biometric access to isolate themselves from the very community whose participation, needs and development they will at some point in future invoke to argue for the political irrelevance of rankings.

What the contradictory logic of securitisation reveals is that “decolonisation”, “transformation” and other tropes that compel universities to recognise their situatedness in time and place are framed by the assumed inescapable logic of placeless neoliberal governance.

For universities, the logic of this governance can perhaps best be described as a form of neomedievalism: the contemporary university (academic kingdom) is engaged in a global war of recognition in which faculties and their departments (vassals) hold feudal tenure on condition that in a time of crisis they will supply the vice-chancellor (king or queen) with knights (academics) to defend the realm.

A further substitution of “warlord/warlady” for “king/queen” highlights that the soldiers conscripted into this war of recognition are not trained in the art of war, because academics are more like noncombatants (villagers) — or they used to be until training camps such as the National Research Foundation (NRF) and performance management systems came along to inculcate the requisite aggression, violence and petty competitiveness required for participation in the war of excellence.

For the individual scholar, rating is the new conscription in war normalised as knowledge production; inversely, individuals and institutions rate each other to death in a world where rating is war conducted by other means.

But the war analogy is limited, because it doesn’t expose the contradictory and self-referential nature of ranking criteria. “Reputation”, rather than a criterion for rating, is an effect of rating.

As Bill Readings puts it in The University in Ruins: “A measure of the flexibility of excellence is that it allows the inclusion of reputation as one category among others in a ranking which [in fact defines] reputation. The metalepsis that allows reputation to be 20 percent of itself is permitted by the intense flexibility of excellence; it allows a category mistake to masquerade as scientific objectivity.”

Outside the ivory towers of the academy, bootstrapping exercises such as securitisation, rankings and the NRF rating have a more common name: pyramid schemes.

Rating is a Ponzi scheme with no real currency (other than self-referential enmity) and no definable purpose (other than self-referential excellence), which bootstraps itself into existence by inculcating in everyone the mimetic agreement that the scheme does have real currency and purpose.

The fact is that rating does not just run in the air, it runs on air and universities go to extraordinary lengths to inculcate in academics the requisite compliance that will prevent them from becoming conscientious objectors in a war with no purpose other than that of conducting itself.

In this self-referential Game of Thrones, knights critique neoliberalism and are rated according to how well they do it — which is a bit like conducting a discourse on decoloniality in the existing frame of institutional culture and being told you’re getting it right.

Field marshals in the pursuit of the Iron Throne are judged by the extent to which they succeed in creating a lean, mean fighting machine.

This often means less politics, less inquiry, less debate and less of everything that does not directly translate into subsidy-earning (the “useless”). The reduction in length of master’s and PhD theses to 200-300 pages is an example.

This reduction in length is nothing short of a radically capitalist alignment of academic quality to a department of higher education and training subsidy.

Collateral to this war on real excellence is the space from which innovative, creative intellectual work emanates — a space that by definition has to flirt with the incalculable, the unanticipated and the useless; with what may or may not become the next big theory, or contribute to the reputation of the institution.

Perhaps our continued fidelity to the student protests of 2015-2016 and the contribution they made to revealing some of these contradictions could take the form of considering the day the minister of higher education and training announces the fee structure for the next year as the first day of spring.

After all, interpreted not in the blasé terms of “social movements” but as a form of unruly politics, students made one thing abundantly clear: you cannot question what is in the frame without also questioning the frame itself.

Professors Leonhard Praeg, Ulrike Kistner and Benda Hofmeyr are members of the philosophy department at the University of Pretoria. These are their own views.

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Ulrike Kistner
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