The Specter of College Rankings
Who gets to be a High Potential Individual?
By Margaret Connor
A specter is haunting academia—the specter of rankings. How can the quality of higher education be reduced to a single number sans context, one which ruthlessly pits universities against one other? Do college rankings have any true utility beyond allowing us to judge our former high school classmates when we look them up on LinkedIn? Rankings mean everything, or they mean nothing. You either sue your alma mater for slipping down a peg (or 16), or you roll your eyes at the loons who attach so much import to an integer. Best of luck to the two people bringing lawsuits against Columbia for misrepresenting itself as the second-best university in the country, but, I mean, some of us have real problems.
If you take the latter tack and see rankings as a ridiculous simplification with limited real-world relevance, it’s startling to see the nebulous number impacting some material part of the world.
The twin vampires of Brexit and the pandemic have proved a brain drain for the U.K., forcing foreigners and nationals alike to weigh the merits of remaining within Britain’s borders against those of relocating abroad. On the blue-collar end, the drastic crash in the number of seasonal workers coming to the U.K. has created enormous gaps in agriculture and livestock processing, leading to wasteful pig-culls, fields of rotting crops, and a festive shortage of Christmas geese. (The haughty, self-sufficient United Kingdom, it turns out, was mostly a horrifically underpaid Jenga tower of Polish slaughterhouse workers, Ukrainian fruit-pickers, and colonial nurses. Go figure.) To remedy this, Britain issued more employment-specific work visas targeting understaffed industries: The expanded Seasonal Work Visa intends to combat dire shortages in horticultural labor, while the Skilled Worker Visa entices foreign nurses and teachers to emigrate. On the knowledge-sector, white-collar side, the exodus of academics, researchers, and businesspeople called for another solution—the High Potential Individual Visa.
With Britain slipping down the international rankings for economic health and quality of life, the nation is turning its focus toward snagging foreigners from high-ranking universities. The new HPI visa scheme allows recent graduates from 37 very specific universities around the globe to apply to live in the U.K. for two or three years without a job offer, sponsorship, or other reasons for emigration. The eligible university list, which comprises 20 American institutions and none from South Asia, Latin America, or Africa, is based entirely on rankings. The other schools include the twin Swiss polytechnic gems; McGill, UToronto, and UBC au Canada; Japan’s Todai and Kyodai; and the Karolinska Institute. The list resembles, not incidentally, a list of institutions which produce a large crop of state leaders and Nobel Prize winners. To qualify for the HPI visa, a school must appear on two of the following: the Academic Ranking of World Universities, Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings, or the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. (For those keeping track at home, our alma mater’s slip down the U.S. News & World Report rankings doesn’t disqualify us Columbians from the scheme. We’ll have to wait and see where it falls on the international rankings at the end of the year.)
If the HPI is an elite exercise in international recruitment, it’s also an example of the parochiality of privilege: Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi called the program “yet another reminder that borders only exist for the poor.” A system that explicitly creates an express lane for the academic 1% to come and do whatever—or nothing at all—in the U.K. for a few years without the usual employment/sponsorship/spousal red tape is effectively an admission that the visa process could be relaxed and simplified, if the government were so inclined. The narrowness of the list, and the arbitrary and opaque reasoning that undergirds it, only sharpens the sting.
The most immediate and acute frustration comes from a few main rubs: Rankings don’t reflect reality, the schools listed are elitist and give priority to the privileged, and basing “potential” on pedigree is anti-meritocratic. The amount of effort, money, and stress involved in the visa process is nothing to ignore, and easing guidelines only for the academic elite is a slap in the face to those who lie outside the circle.
I spoke to Valerie Monaco, director of International Student Services with Access Barnard, about students’ experience with the visa process. As with Britain’s labor shortage, the pandemic caused international enrollment and studying abroad to crater. She described the chaos that international students faced when consulates shut down. The Student Exchange and Visitor Program accordingly made changes to the student visa process to better accommodate remote learning and provide alternatives to physical paper forms, digitizing paperwork and removing the need for pen-on-paper signatures.
In addition to the recent move toward digitization, I asked Monaco what she thought could be done to make the visa process more equitable. While International Student Services isn’t directly involved in the visa process, she advocated for a more holistic evaluation process. Monaco explained that the most ideal visa evaluations would involve “taking a look at everything that the student is presenting, what their intentions are for studying, what their remarks are during the interview process, and their level of preparedness.” A question lies at the heart of our suspicion of prestige: How do we holistically rank a college? How do we assess the best college choice when the rankings may be biased? How does a government holistically identify a High Potential Individual from across the pond?
The HPI visa raises eyebrows because it goes against our meritocratic instinct, reducing education and achievement to the black letter on a diploma. Not transcript, letters of recommendation, or portfolio—just alma mater. If a holistic approach to immigration would be a step toward equity, then the HPI visa is a step backwards.
God’s chosen people—the participants in The New York Times comment section—weighed in on the controversy. One Palo Altoite commented, “How is NYU on the list but Dartmouth and Brown are not??? This makes no sense. Time to revisit the methodology of all these ‘rankings.’ And why is Columbia still highly regarded after their scandalous and blatant attempts to game the ranking system??” (Good question, one easily answered by checking which rankings the visa program uses to determine eligibility.) Some responders bemoaned the elitist implications of the list of universities, while others pointed out the notable absence of Indian institutions. (Some commenters even figured out how to activate spell check before hitting “post.”) The overwhelming response was one of outrage and scorn. A Californian summed it up admirably: “Rankings are an illusion. … There are scores of universities from the US which didn’t make the list, but have graduates more qualified than those from the listed ones.” Still on the flashpoint of merit, a dissenting Michigander wrote, “So the program to attract the best and brightest focuses on the best universities. Seems extremely appropriate and sound. Kudos to the UK for maintaining some belief in meritocracy while the USA descends into a Cultural Revolution to annihilate all measurement and judgment.” Personally, I eagerly await the Cultural Revolution; I think it would do wonders for New York rent prices.
If the United States introduced a parallel program, Monaco thought, it wouldn’t go over well. “Just to obtain a work visa, apply for U.S. residency—these are very expensive and time-consuming processes,” she said. “So I imagine if a visa such as that or status such as that came about, I would think there would be some resistance.”
Ultimately, the HPI visa has gone mostly unnoticed—one article in The New York Times, one from The Guardian. It would probably have attracted more opprobrium if it hadn’t flown so far under the radar. Compared to Rankinggate or the Varsity Blues scandal, the HPI visa isn’t a topic of national conversation despite its implications for thousands of graduates worldwide.
(… Mostly. The HPI visa has become attractive clickbait fodder for YouTube e-z immigration gurus, grifters who fall somewhere on the spectrum from scammer to violator of international law. Videos with titles like “UK work visa no job offer required” and “New UK VISA Announced - Get visa without a job offer!” promise a life hack that’ll get you a UK visa, no sweat. (If you can manage the simple task of graduating from an Ivy. (But not Brown.)))
For all our collective concern over rankings, and our concern about the concern over rankings, we ought to remember that our position on a numbered list can’t represent our education, our achievement, or our potential. Likewise, taking a tumble down the rankings doesn’t negate the power of Columbia’s prestige—whether or not CU qualifies for the HPI visa in 2023, bearing the name of an “elite” university on your diploma still confers upon you some of that privilege. Rankings are a symptom of a shallow, hypercompetitive, exclusionary system, but the same Ivy worship that places a school like Columbia so high on the Academic Ranking of World Universities has a tangible impact beyond the meaningless signifiers. The self-perpetuating cycle of exclusion and elitism, and the question of how to create a more equitable, meritocratic world, is larger than any individual school, scandal, or poorly formulated visa policy.
Anyway, I’m probably going to try for one of those visas this summer. It’s stupid, but not as stupid as suing your alma mater over college rankings.