Many schools of thought when it comes to rankings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2012, 12:00am


In Hong Kong's brand-conscious society, university rankings attract much public attention. After all, universities' ranking and reputation are key considerations in many people's college selection criteria.

It is also common knowledge that there is a pecking order among the city's eight publicly funded universities, with the top three research-intensive institutions being the most sought after.

But making it into the top tier and staying there could be taking a toll on the quality of education. Academics have long lamented the heavy pressure to produce research work - a common factor in external recognition - which affects the amount of time spent with students.

There is also the issue of subjectivity. Besides research, ranking polls tend to look at factors such as faculty profiles, institutional reputation, alumni salaries and so on, with each poll attaching different weightings to different criteria.

But institutions' reputation sometimes 'lags behind reality', says Professor Philip Hanlon, provost of the University of Michigan, during a recent visit to Hong Kong. His college is ranked 14th globally by the QS Intelligence Unit survey.

For instance, some polls are discipline-oriented, having a strong focus on the outcome of business education or science training. Choosing the right college education therefore requires a clear understanding of the criteria and weightings used.

What's more, universities strong in disciplines such as science and engineering - as opposed to humanities and social sciences - are in a favourable position, since those disciplines tend to be more active in research.

Ranking exercises can be confusing too. For example, the recent inaugural exercises by QS and Times Higher Education on the world's top universities with a history of 50 years or less present contrasting results.

The Chinese University led the QS poll of the top 50 such institutions, ahead of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

In the Times' poll of the top 100 such colleges, however, Chinese University trailed behind HKUST, which came third after Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. A reason is that the inaugural QS poll simply filtered institutions by age and their global rankings last year.

As with other personal choices, choosing a university requires an understanding of one's likes and dislikes. Making decisions based on popular trends is a mistake.

For instance, a major state college such as the University of Michigan may not suit students with a strong need for guidance and nurturing, says Hanlon.

The University of Michigan, he says, is 'entrepreneurial', offering many activities and research opportunities for students with an exploratory bent. But those who are more introverted may thrive at smaller colleges.

Certainly, being discerning helps as well. Strong state support undoubtedly helped elevate Peking University's position in the QS Asian league table to sixth from 13th last year, but one wonders about the degree of academic freedom that staff and students enjoy, compared with foreign universities.

Hanlon agrees that curbs on academic freedom mean that high-quality work is more likely in technical fields. These are considerations that will prove useful when local students consider their options when they receive their A-level results this week.