Many people sent me this story, and I suppose their reasons are rather obvious for doing so, for it seems that the University of Oxford has topped the latest "polls" for top universities in the world:
But as an alumnus of the institution I have to wonder if all this attention is really a good thing, and during this political referendum year in the USSA, where polls have been doctored to fit a certain reportedly female candidate fronting for the politics of identity and symbolism, I have to wonder about the past "measures" of university status. And that prompts the question, what makes a great university? In fact, what really is a university? What's it for?
When I decided that I wanted to try to do a doctorate at that institution, I was informed that I would have to persuade someone to mentor me through the process, and that required physically going to the UK and being interviewed by that individual, who also informed me that fifty percent of all people who begin a doctorate at the university never finish, and of those who do, fifty percent of them fail to obtain the degree. A seventy-five percent failure rate (at least, in 1983 when I was interviewed).
Consider that exchange for a moment, for it says a great deal about these "university surveys" and the assumptions underlying them. Imagine that individual working instead for Harvard, Stanford, Berserkley, Princeton, Yale, and offering a statistic like that. "What percentage of your post-graduate students actually obtain their degree?" "Ahm... only twenty-five percent."
At the time, such university surveys and the deeper implied questions they raised did not trouble me. If anything, I viewed my potential mentor's reply as something Oxford should be proud of, not ashamed of, for it meant that the University was not an American Ivy League degree mill resting on ill-deserved laurels, big names, over charged and ridiculous tuitions (yes I said it!), and interested only in bottom lines which are seldom genuine measures of a university's greatness.
Which brings us to these articles, for note the criteria by which these "estimates" were made:
Oxford’s success can be attributed to improved performances across the four main indicators underlying the methodology of the ranking – teaching, research, citations and international outlook. More specifically the institution’s total income and research income is rising faster than its staff numbers, its research is more influential, and it has been more successful at drawing in international talent.
The BBC version puts it this way, with the usual and expected barbs about what a disaster BREXIT is going to be for the British university system:
The Times Higher tables rank universities worldwide on measures including teaching, research and international outlook - for example, numbers of overseas students and staff.
Editor of the rankings Phil Baty said it was "fantastic news" Oxford had come top, but the UK's vote to leave the European Union was a big threat to the sector.
"The referendum result is already causing uncertainty for the sector," he said.
Well, three cheers for the United Kingdom, having the good sense not to allow Brussels bureaucrats and the perpetually inebriated Jean-Claude Juncker to have an influence at Cambridge or Oxford.
But getting back to the "criteria", note what they are: (1) teaching, (2) research, (3) citations, and (4) something called "international outlook". If one ponders criteria 2 and 3, it becomes clear that one may be looking at the sort of superficial "statistical" measure of "greatness" that so obsesses the modern world. "Who has the most citations in the professional literature?" Why, Oxford does! Therefore, it must be the top ranking university in the world! Hip hip hoorah! This is a purely quantitative measure, and has nothing to do with the actual quality of any university. And one suspects that the literature being examined here is wholly the scientific and technical-engineering literature; I doubt they were interested in music, literature, archaeology, and "stuff like that." What about criterion number 4? Well, what exactly is meant by international outlook? I suspect I know, and I suspect the reader does too: it means overall submission and subservience to the wackadoodle nonsense about "multiculturalism" we've been seeing so much of lately, to the idea that "all cultures are created equal" (and the usual subtext in contemporary times, Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance). Now course, it could mean something completely innocent, such as where its faculty are from, where its students are from, and so on. But in today's climate, where every little thing has to be harvested to serve the goals of meganational corporations and globaloney, I highly doubt it. So I suspect "international outlook" has nothing whatsoever to do with how cosmopolitan or provincial an academic institution is. When I was at Oxford, it was a charming mixture of both, for I mixed and mingled with Zulus and Boers from the Witwatersrand, Egyptians, Syrians, Germans, Russians, New Zealanders, Australians, sons of Japanese shipping magnates, pretentious Americans from the Ivy League universities (who invariably were the stupidest of the lot: Farrell's law: the pretentiousness of the American Ivy League graduate is directly proportional to their ignorance and political correctness). And we did all this international mixing and mingling in a mid-sized British city somewhere in the "wilderness" between London and Bristol and Birmingham, where civilization - and university surveys - barely managed to penetrate.
Which leaves us to the first of the criteria, teaching. To be perfectly honest, no one at the Oxford that I remember "taught" anything to anyone. It is a tutorial system(or at least was). You taught yourself, and if you needed a professor to hold your hand and walk you through your latest personal or emotional crisis, you rang them up, explained your situation, and they promptly told you "no" and to only ring them up if you "had something substantial and new in your research to go over." Of course, Oxford dons give lectures like any other university, and it's a good idea to attend a few, but the University does not hover over them, or you, and issue decrees about how much "class attendance" you had to have in order to "pass a course." There are no classes, courses. The only thing that matters are results; how you get there - attending or not attending lectures - is up to you. You're an adult. A free agent. An individual. With a mind of your own. Now... go out and find the facts and argue the case you want to make and convince the rest of us that it's worth looking at.
No courses in the use of gender neural language, no courses on sensitivity, none of the rot that infects the "top universities" in the survey representing American quackademia, and American quackademia's "values".
And that's what gives me pause here, for what makes a great university great is not the number of "citations" appearing in journals, nor how many students it graduates, nor how many famous and great scholars attended it, nor how many countries its faculty or student body are drawn from, nor how many "sensitivity" courses and guidelines and "safe spaces" it has to save its students from the horrors of micro-aggressions. When I decided to try to attend Oxford, I gave up a scholarship at an American "institution of higher learning" because, at the PhD level, they wanted me to take a required course in "gender neutral language" and, of course, expected me to utilize such in my academic compositions. I refused. I did not, and do not, need my consciousness raised by political correctness or trendy fads. I wanted to be free to pursue an idea, and argue it in the way and in the diction I chose.
Literally, I fled the shores of American quackademia in search of that academic freedom. I found it at Oxford, and even then it was under threat from the sensitivity crowd and being pressured to compete on the basis of criteria having little to do with its tradition.
And that's why I view this "top position" based on dubious and suspect criteria with a very skeptical eye.
See you on the flip side...