28 SES 02 B, Digital Technologies, Digital Economy and Neuroscience in European Space of Education
University rankings have taken up a central place in higher education policies for at least three decades. Since the mid-1990s, university rankings have become increasingly popular with policy makers and institutional leaders. At present, there are more than 30 different ranking systems of higher education around the world (e.g. Times Higher Education, QS World University Rankings, etc.). Even though these systems vary greatly in what and how they measure, the vast majority of these rankings rely exclusively on quantifiable measures of institutional performance (Shin & Toutkoushian, 2011). Based on such measures, these systems provide composite scores that can (and are) subsequently integrated into overall scores, which allows to rank higher education institutes into singular ‘league tables’, ranking universities from generally better to generally worse performing.
Even though ranking systems are highly influential and receive broad media coverage, their methods are not without critiques. For instance, it has been argued that these systems tend to prioritize a specific model of education, namely that of the comprehensive research intensive university. It has consequentially been argued that ‘science-strong’ and English speaking universities are likewise gaining an implicit advantage (Marginson & van der Wende, 2007). Another often raised critique is that rankings provide an overly-simplified picture of (the quality of) higher education and install an undesired competitive playing field (Pusser & Marginson, 2013). At the same time, recognition is growing that rankings enact a global higher education market, where students are explicitly addressed to search for, and study at, the ‘best’ higher education institution possible.
In view of these developments, and explicitly recognizing the downsides of the present ‘football league mentality’, the European Commission launched the U-Multirank platform in 2014 (www.umultirank.org). The European Commission particularly promotes three features of U-Multirank that make it distinguishable from other ranking systems, and that similarly aims to address several main downsides of these systems. First, U-Multirank aims to be fully multidimensional, without creating composite scores – thereby aiming to mitigate the issue of comparing ‘apples with pears’: it makes little sense to compare the performances of institutions with completely different missions and activity profiles (U-Multirank, n.d.:5). Comparison on U-Multirank is proclaimed to be done only with similar institutional profiles. Secondly, U-Multirank operates according to a user-driven logic that prioritizes user-friendliness and comprehensibility. In that respect, the platform is highly interactive and allows the visitor of the platform a significant amount of interactivity and the ability to construct her own personalized rankings (European Commission, n.d.).
The objective of this contribution is not to analyze the unicity of U-Multirank as compared to other ranking systems or to judge upon its efficacity and/or comprehensibility, but to analyze the platform as an active policy instrument that performs particular operations and that conveys particular messages about what it is to be a (European) student today, what it is to study today, and what it is to be (in) Europe today (Lascoumes & Le Gales, 2007). Rather than taking the platform at face value, this contribution analyzes U-Multirank as a device that is imbricated in the digital governance of European education, and that – through assessing – seeks to shape particular forms of education, and particular forms of students (Williamson, 2016). Digital education governance has recently attracted many interest of educational scholars (e.g. ibid.), but what is presently not extensively explored is if, and how, digital platforms contribute to the Europeanization of education, and the specific sorts of operations they install in order to make this possible.
The theoretical and methodological framework of this study is informed by recent developments in educational research, and more particularly by sociomaterial and sociotopological approaches to education (Fenwick & Landri, 2012; Decuypere & Simons, 2016). Both approaches allow to conceive of digital platforms not as neutral hatchways of information, but rather as policy instruments that take up an active role and that perform specific operations. Furthermore, both frameworks centrally conceive such platforms through a relational lens. That is to say, sociomaterial and sociotopological approaches analyze such platforms by and through the relations that are established between multifarious actors and that eventually enact particular (sorts of) effects. Furthermore, both approaches are fruitful in understanding the specific spatiotemporal configurations that are enacted through such operations: it is a central characteristic of these approaches that they enable to open up the ‘black box’ of digital platforms, and thereby enable to focus on the various sorts of spaces and times that are, likewise, relationally established (Mol & Law, 1994). Embedded within these frameworks, this contribution analyzes U-Multirank by combining three distinct yet complementary methods. First, a genealogy of the platform will be made, that seeks to reconstruct how U-Multirank came into being, and why it has taken the specific (digital) shape it has today. Second, a diagrammatic approach will be adopted that scrutinizes the platform as an assemblage of textual and visual elements, and that is centrally interested in disentangling the different sorts of time and space that are likewise fabricated. This approach, which appeals directly to sociomaterial and sociotopological tenets to scrutinize the ‘material semiotics’ of U-Multirank, will disentangle how the platform is configured precisely, that is: how it presents and orders information about (European) higher education institutes. This will be done by scrutinizing the relational qualities (visually and textually shaped, e.g. by means of colors, contrasts, analogies, etc.) present on the platform, as well as the specific scripts (what the platform invites its visitors (not) to do and (not) to see) that are embedded within the platform (Decuypere, 2016; Landri, forthcoming). Third, and based on the genealogical study and the diagrammatic approach, a multi-site ethnography will be effectuated in which we follow how U-Multirank is deployed precisely nowadays. By focused web searches (a.o. in newspapers, HEI websites, social networking sites), we will trace how U-Multirank comes into being nowadays and the specific ways in which the platform makes its users think and act.
This contribution has two finalities. First, this study will add to our understanding of how concrete digital EU initiatives work on a daily basis, and how they – through specific operations – aim to govern the field of higher education. Platforms as U-Multirank operate according to a regime of visibility that seeks to shed light on the European (and global) higher education field. Moreover, however, U-Multirank increases this visibility by taking into account more comprehensive measures of universities’ performances as well as visualizing these performances in a very distinct manner. As such, U-Multirank should not only be considered as an expert and high-profile center of calculation, it should equally be considered as a center of visualization that opens up a highly particular (European) educational space, and a highly particular (way of dealing with) time. Secondly, at present the operations and working mechanics of such digital platforms are largely a black box that is in need of unpacking. More specifically, how such platforms convey particular understandings of what it is to be a (European) student today, what it is to study today, and what it is to be (in) Europe today, is not sufficiently clear. In that sense, this contribution will disentangle what could be called the mode of existence of the European student in search for a higher education institution and of universities themselves: on U-Multirank, the European student comes into being as a singularized individual whose agency (and consequential responsibilities) are completely personalized, whereas European universities come into being as fragmented environments (rather than institutions) with distinct performative zones.
Decuypere, M. (2016). Diagrams of Europeanization: European education governance in the digital age. Journal of Education Policy, 31(6), 851-872. Decuypere, M., & Simons, M. (2016). Relational thinking in education: topology, sociomaterial studies, and figures. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 24(3), 371-386. European Commission (n.d.). U-Multirank. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/education/initiatives/u-multirank_en Fenwick, T., & Landri, P. (2012). Materialities, textures and pedagogies: Socio-material assemblages in education. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 20(1), 1-7. Landri, P. (Forthcoming). Cartographies of the digital governance of education. World education yearbook 2019. Lascoumes, P. & Le Gales, P., 2007. Introduction: Understanding Public Policy through Its Instruments? From the Nature of Instruments to the Sociology of Public Policy Instrumentation. Governance, 20(1), pp.1–21. Marginson, S., & van der Wende, M. (2007). To rank or to be ranked: The impact of global rankings in higher education. Journal of Studies in International Education, 11(3-4), 306-329. Mol, A., & Law, J. (1994). Regions, networks and fluids: anaemia and social topology. Social studies of science, 24(4), 641-671. Pusser, B., & Marginson, S. (2013). University rankings in critical perspective. The Journal of Higher Education, 84(4), 544-568. Shin, J.C., & Toutkoushian, R.K. (2011). The past, present and future of university rankings. In J.C. Shin, R.K. Toutkoushian and U. Teichler (eds.), University rankings: Theoretical basis, methodology and impacts on higher education. Dordrecht: Springer. U-Multirank (n.d.). Q+A Memo. Retrieved from http://www.che-ranking.de/downloads/Q_and_A_Memo_UMR_2017_FINAL_2051.pdf Williamson, B., 2016. Digital education governance: An introduction. European Educational Research Journal, 15(1), pp.3–13.
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