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London's bridge is not one too far



10 August 2012

Professor John Hearn: "While the rankings are becoming more informed and intelligent, their growing impact is of concern."
Professor John Hearn: "While the rankings are becoming more informed and intelligent, their growing impact is of concern."

All is right on the night. The naysayers are dispersed. As the Olympics roll on, London and the Brits are cresting the wave with a superb backdrop of history, humanity and style.

The atmosphere in London is electric as the jigsaw pieces mesh, the stars shine, and even the rain is refreshing. The night streets mix Brazilians and Kenyans, Canadians and Chinese.

Hopes are high that the influence of Olympic teamwork will be national and inclusive, wiping out the deep disaster of last year's riots. The medal count shows that the Brits, once just good losers, are now good winners. And the Army is now part of the team and the community. And the lightning Bolt makes us all proud. And London, as the most diverse and multicultural city in the world, shows we can get along just fine - until the next time.

Mayor Boris is everywhere, but the Australians for once are on the wrong end of the jokes. Everyone remembers the great Sydney Olympics, but that was long ago and nobody's looking back.

Before the start the Press reported breathlessly on the Australians' noisy arrival in town, full of "We'll thrash the Poms" bravado. The chair of the Australian Olympic Committee was given multiple reminders of his infamous comment in Beijing, that Britain is a nation with few pools and not much soap. It was hardly original, but it hasn't been forgotten.

Then the Aussies disappeared as the Brits ignored them and gathered up cascades of gold. Worse, the Brits even drew admiration for their failure to gloat, although they couldn't resist a few digs at their French neighbours.

Luckily, after a week, the young Australian team burst through with brilliance, rescuing the reputation and climbing in the rankings - ahead (phew!) of New Zealand but not of Yorkshire or Kazakhstan.

After sitting up for several nights watching replays and reflections from the good, the bad and the ugly, I found the games a moving evocation of hope in globalisation and teamwork. The individual superstars were revered but mainly modest. The teams were deeply impressive in their camaraderie, collegiality and consequent sustainability.

As in most spheres of life, much was made of the rankings. The medal count metrics are impossible to dispute. Individual sports from jumping to judo get gold, silver and bronze. Nations quake as the slot machines crank and the daily linear listing is launched.

Alongside the metrics is the competitiveness. Specialist teams dissect the anatomy, physiology, capacity and mentality of the athletes, with special trainers for each facet.

The international university rankings that are published each year are more ambiguous. Small, sharp universities with few disciplines are pitted against massive behemoths. Battleships are ranked with ballet dancers. Plato is ranked with Confucius.

The rankings games have resulted in an unseemly encouragement to uniformity in meeting externally imposed criteria. Universities have joined in and even pay the rankers for the pleasure of being drawn and quartered. Many try to exploit the rules, including some who rent redundant or retired Nobels for the extra rankings points they carry in their baggage.

While the rankings are becoming more informed and intelligent and will continue to do so, their growing impact is of concern. This is especially so when the core elements and values of autonomy, enquiry, diversity and quality are sacrificed for rankings roulette and greed. Governments, academies, parents and students all watch the rankings. Follow the money.

It is a brave university vice-chancellor who can ignore the rankings to build brilliance, although the two are not always incompatible. There is also a risk that universities in emerging economies walk in the footsteps of the gods but lose their souls.

I suggest that the answers are in the risks. It is teamwork time for learning and its application to global challenges. Universities must work together across national, cultural and developmental divides. As London swings us toward international hope and a wellspring of harmony and goodwill, it begs a key question: Can we use academic diplomacy and opportunity to build lasting bridges and to learn from each other?


Professor John Hearn is chief executive of the Worldwide Universities Network and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International) at the University of Sydney.


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