University rankings are useless.
They reflect irrelevant parameters (like how the ranked universities rank each other), elitist assumptions (how many students they reject) and encourage status quo (how much money they have). Besides, these rankings aggregate all these based on completely random distribution of weightage, which means nothing even if one was interested in some parameters that these include.
We are stupidly addicted to them. We make our children follow ranking, despite the huge financial burdens and emotional costs. Perfectly normal people indulge in corruption. Instead of learning and experience, we chase vanity, flaunting which college our children go to even at the cost of their well-being. We let self-appointed experts, mainly from media, soothe and deceive us with a single round number, pandering our innate silliness that all numbers must mean something.
The status quo society that we lived in - ever since the end of history in the 90s - this mattered less than how it does now. The pandemic, automation, demographic pivot, return of inflation, Russia's deliberate breaking of the world order - everything now points to a different reality we must live in. For this, higher ed needs fixing. To get started, we must throw our ranking obsession out of the window and start again with new parameters.
We need a Good Education Index!
This should be an index based on what the learners experience and crucially, what they achieve in the end. Indeed, some regulators are now getting serious about outcome (if only in a vain attempt to contain the spiralling student loan burdens), but the traditional measurements unrelated to education will not do.
For example, the two most fashionable measurements of outcome are clearly off. The first one is employability. Apart from the fact that the students are counted out when they pursue further studies, this is completely dependent on the labour market dynamic, which favours one kind of job over another in different local contexts. So, for example, being a great cybersecurity expert in India may mean less opportunity than being able to speak English fluently. What's more - this does not take into account workplace bias, which works against minorities, women and matured students.
The other, perhaps truer, measurement is the starting salary. However, this has two problems: One, it means nothing as an average at a time when we pay outsized salaries to few and next to nothing to many. Two, that its connection to education is at best tenuous. People with rich parents usually do much better than good education on this scale. People in bigger cities and closer to innovation clusters do better, regardless of their education. It reflects who you are born as and where you live more than whether you were educated.
Therefore, a good education index, something that may put the focus on the value of education. This should combine outcomes with intellectual ability and behaviour, not unlike the assessments many companies would do when hiring or promoting people. Most countries run some kind of assessment for graduates, if only to allocate research dollars or government jobs. Of course, these tests don't have a behavioural aspect, but it is needed if we have to look at the value of education.
So, if such a test could be designed and implemented (over the fierce objection of special interests, media and all the ranked universities), what parameters should this look at?
In my mind, a good education does four things.
First, it liberates. It allows people to think beyond their station, their allocated place in the social hierarchy. This is often reflected in Mindset: A growth mindset is perhaps an essential educational outcome. This is certainly observable and perhaps measurable at scale.
Second, it animates. It allows people to see beauty in the prosaic, find meaning in daily life. This is about mental well-being and balance. Trained professionals can measure this and a number of tools exist.
Third, it connects. It allows people to find interests and shared purpose. Even the most introvert, with a digital tool, can build powerful networks if they can find the capability of connection: Empathy, respect and a shared interest! This is quite easily measurable with a person's network behaviour, including the type of connection and the nature of interactions.
Fourth, it instigates. It gives one a theory of action, something to work for. It inspires people to be, as Gandhi said, the change they want to see in the world. Again, this is visible in a person's activity footprint: Do they care for something? Are they doing something they care for?
All of this is measurable if we care to do it. They are more meaningful than the woolly rankings designed to mislead. They will take us back to what really matters in education, and to what we really need to build productive economies and functional societies. They will focus our minds on what a true 21st century professional should look like.
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