Playing Language Games: University Responses to League Tables

Year: 2017

Author: Heffernan, Troy, Heffernan, Amanda

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Universities are subjected to multiple rounds of rankings on a variety of metrics each year. These rankings are increasingly reported on in the media, in some cases are tied to funding, and studies show that they are often interpreted by the public as being objective consumer product ratings that display a neutral assessment of an institution's teaching and research quality.

This paper presents data from a wider study of university responses to being placed on ranking tables. We propose that Lyotard's (1984) concept of Language Games provides a possible new way of understanding the way universities manoeuvre within a wider performative ranking culture and how they formulate their responses to strategically position themselves in more positive ways, regardless of the official ranking they may receive. We suggest that these strategic moves represent a tension for universities - enabling them to reclaim some power over being ranked while at the same time legitimising the ranking process itself.

The data show that universities from the very top to the bottom of world ranking league tables attempt to improve the outlook of their ranking. These methods include positioning their result in a smaller assessment area such as within their location, comparing themselves to similar types of universities, citing their results from other league tables, or focusing on their overall improvement rather than their table position. Universities are also playing language games by taking advantage of the growing number of tables that measure an ever-increasing number of various 'qualities'. This tactic allows universities to direct their audiences away from global research and reputation rankings where they may have received lower ranking results, and instead focus on those achievements that portray them in the best light. The paper shows how universities that sit in various positions in rankings, including at the very top, play language games to find methods that allow them to strategically respond to the rank they are given.