What purpose do University Rankings serve?!

PTU News reporter

In the new era of competition, traditional and online media are flooded with news reports of different university rankings. Many newspapers cover a lot about the rise or drop in ranking of prestigious universities, and the universities announce their good new ranking in their own promotional materials right away. While these rankings cause a lot of public interest or anxiety in academic circles, on what criteria are these rankings based? And which direction do these rankings lead our tertiary education to?

Over-emphasis on Academic Research

The two most well-known university rankings are the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and QS World University Rankings. When we look into the indicators on which the rankings are based for comparison, we found that they put too much weight on research output but other elements of tertiary education are not valued enough.

T

For example, in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, research output is weighted 60% in the assessment. We cannot deny that research and innovation are essential for the whole society, but other keys to the success of the universities should not be under-emphasized either. University education is very essential for nourishing talents, and therefore teaching is no less important than doing research. Teaching is weighted only 30% in the assessment and this is far from sufficient to show the efforts that the teaching staff makes for training up a talent. More worrying is that the management of the universities would shift the focus and resources from teaching to research. Fung Wai-wah, the HKPTU President, is very much worried that the local institutions put too much emphasis on research, as he saw that some teaching staff members’ contracts were not renewed because the management is not happy about their research output. University teaching staff can therefore have no alternative but concentrate on the research. Caring their students is definitely less prioritized.

Local Research Topics Not Prioritized

Moreover, the ranking position is also based on the significance of the research papers, which would likely be judged by whether the paper is published in a renowned international journal or how frequent it has been cited by other scholars. Some local research topics, such as Hong Kong political situation, education system and local economic policies, which would likely be conducted in local language and less likely be cited in the international academic journals, are given up very often. Research on local topics are ignored as a result. Fung is much more concerned about the insufficient time and resources for the local research, which would make a bad impact on the subjects like social work and education. We doubt if it is beneficial for the local development if our local institutions blindly chase higher rankings which finally make our scholars give up their local research.

University rated by Funding?

More seriously, like in the Times’s rankings, they further look into the utility of the research projects, which is assessed by the amount of research funding earned from this project. Normally research projects like commercial management or technology in engineering will attract more sponsorship from their respective industries. However it can hardly apply the same principle to the research projects of fundamental science or cultural studies. In the criterion of “teaching: the learning environment”, the score is even based on the average income earned by teaching staff for their institution. Under such assessment, it is not surprising that the institutions started so many different kinds of self-financing programs in recent years, and their tuition fee costs more than hundred thousand dollars. This profit-oriented direction has greatly distorted the nature of our tertiary education system.
The management of the universities should be clear about their role in the society. Universities should not be assessed only by how many research papers they produced, how much school fees they received and how much funding they got. If the management shifts the resources from teaching to research for the sake of higher ranking, our teachers and students will suffer.