English is excellence

Are university rankings like an iron cage that leaves no option but to submit to its logic?

Are university rankings like an iron cage that leaves no option but to submit to its logic?

“Using English is the sign of a great mind. Discuss.” Sounds like an absurdly bigoted essay topic? While I’ve made up the topic and while most readers will baulk at such an explicit association of English with academic excellence, most of us have come to accept precisely this equation, even if implicitly. I’m talking about global university rankings.

Over the past decade, university rankings have become incredibly influential. Inside and outside the academy, university rankings undergird policy frameworks and funding allocations. Even if people disagree about this or that form of measurement, the idea that university performance should be measured and ranked is now firmly entrenched. The result is universalized academic competition and the belief that university rankings are meaningful and should guide educational, social and economic policies.

English has become one of the central terrains where competition plays out. Rankings quantify academic performance on the basis of four criteria, which are differently measured and weighted in different rankings: research and publications; learning environment; reputation; and internationalization. As Piller and Cho (2013) demonstrate, except for learning environment, each of these criteria serves to promote English in covert ways despite the fact that each criterion is ostensibly language-neutral.

Research and publications usually privileges English because English-language journals and publishers are more highly ranked, more prestigious and “more international.” Accepting that achieving global impact is the most meaningful form of knowledge production means publishing in English.

Reputation is the most controversial criterion and measured in different ways but obviously linked to all kinds of assumptions. If it is measured, as in one Korean ranking, by asking the HR departments of multinational corporations from which Korean universities they would like to hire graduates, the link with English is not particularly subtle. Graduates who are planning to pursue careers in local or national organizations are not even considered as potential bearers of ‘reputation.’

Finally, the internationalization criterion strongly favours universities where English is the medium of instruction. It puts pressure on non-English-speaking universities to switch to English as a medium of instruction in order to improve their standing in the rankings. Furthermore, other indices of internationalization such as the percentage of international faculty or international students all act as drivers towards increasing the number of classes taught through the medium of English.

In sum, it is obvious that university rankings operate in a way that privileges English and – implicitly – creates a connection between English and excellence. To accept university rankings as drivers of policy is to accept that English means excellence.

University rankings are often touted as a means to hold universities accountable to the public: an institution’s standing in the rankings is a clear indicator of what they are doing with their funding and how they are contributing to the common good, or so the reasoning goes. By contrast, the purveyors of rankings are not accountable to anyone and no consensus as to whether English should be considered as a measurement of academic excellence has ever been sought or emerged. In fact, the equation continues to be hidden precisely because no such consensus exists and is unlikely to emerge.

Instead, university rankings institutionalize the equation between English and excellence de facto.

Max Weber (cited in Erkillä, 2013) compares modern institutional practices of book-keeping, accounting and performance statistics – of which university rankings are a prime example – to an “iron cage,” which leaves no option but to submit to its logic. Submission limits the realms of democracy and ethics and makes alternatives disappear.

How long before we cannot even imagine an alternative to the incipient fact that English is excellence?

ResearchBlogging.org Erkkilä, Tero (2013). Global University Rankings, Transnational Policy Discourse and Higher Education in Europe European Journal of Education DOI: 10.1111/ejed.12063

Piller, Ingrid, & Cho, Jinhyun (2013). Neoliberalism as language policy Language in Society, 42 (1), 23-44 DOI: 10.1017/S0047404512000887 This article is now available for open access directly from Cambridge University Press thanks to an Open Access Assistance Grant from the Faculty of Human Sciences, Macquarie University.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Saeed Rezaei

    Very interesting post indeed. Vaughan Rapatahana and Pauline Bunce have edited a new book entitled “English Language as Hydra”. They argue how English has become the Hydra of time. Like the Hydra, English is the immortal and multi-headed creature feeding on the lucrative market of ELT. Some writers including Ngugi wa Thiong’o have aired their grievances by writing in their own mother tongue though at times unattainable.

    • amharreld

      But doesn’t that create its own problem? Because they only publish in their own language, their voice is less likely to be heard internationally (where most of the power and influence is on this subject).
      .
      There really is no easy answer to this, no matter how you look at it.

  • Jack

    Interesting post, thank you.

    University rankings, like all other institutional rankings, are toxic in the extreme. They distort and pervert the function and behaviour of institutions away from their more loosely defined real purpose and towards chasing narrow metrics.

    However, in the case of universities, there is actually a strong – and real – merit in there being a _lingua franca_ for academic discourse. A single language allows researchers from all over the world to meet and discuss, to publish and be read and – most importantly – to access research conducted in any country. The problem with this is, of course, that the choice of language has a limiting effect on access to the research community. It seems to me that English instruction actually offers some solution to this problem, one need only to compare the excellent English of Indian students to the dismal standard of English spoken by the typical Chinese student to see how much difference being taught in English makes.

    • amharreld

      The problem with this is that, while in the past, an academic language (like Latin or Arabic) may have allowed for a better capability for academics to meet and discuss, this is less so now. With new technological advances, such as google translate, the necessity for ‘all’ academic work to be centralized into a single language is not as necessary. It is even arguable that the university, in its current iteration, is quickly becoming outdated thanks to online phenomena (like open access journals, wikipedia, and p2p university).

      As well, if we go with a Blommaertian view of things, looking at the problem of language as truncated reperotoires and linguistic resources instead of monoglot-ish languages, the idea of a single academic language only helps to create a structure that outs individuals that do not have access (or as much access to) the ‘monoglot’ linguistic resources. This is more problematic in the periphery where mobility is extremely limited for those who are not in the upper-eschalon, making issues of class even more ingrained.

  • Hanna Torsh

    I have to say I find the idea that “the typical Chinese student” has a dismal standard of English totally contrary to my experience, which is of a high degree of bilingualism in both oral and written skills compared to local students here in Australia. I don’t think it adds anything to the debate to denigrate the language learning efforts of an entire nationality, especially if we’re trying to foster an environment of academic pluralism and overcoming linguistic insecurity.

  • Anne Schol

    What you are overlooking is the transience of world-culture. In another century the world-language of knowledge and research might be Chinese, or any other language. For a large time in Western Culture, the remnants of the Roman Empire extended across the European Continent and in its wake the language of scolars was Latin. This was a little bit diminished (but not extinguished) by the “courtly” language of French, which at some point even the ‘English’ court spoke French… and until WWII French was the language of the well-educated upper classes, while Latin remained the language of scolars – because of Medicine, Theology and similar subjects. Now we seem more driven by economics rather than research and English has become the (easier?) world language that unites us. The real shame is that native speakers of English often do not see the need to be highly proficient in a second language, which I feel closes of the avenue of understanding true internationalism because you can “think” in only one language too.

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