My Take

Rankings belie the real purpose of universities: to educate

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 October, 2013, 12:54am

Local university chiefs endlessly fret over their institutions' rankings by foreign media. Worse, they worry about becoming less competitive if rankings slip a notch or two relative to say, mainland universities, as if they are fierce competitors out to clean up the city's young talent pool. In doing so, they are talking and acting like our chief executive and commerce bureau chiefs.

But wait a minute, universities are not cities or businesses; they are there to educate the young and discover new knowledge which may or may not have immediate commercial value. Universities serve a completely different purpose in society. So let's remember that and forget about the latest rankings or business fads. Yes, businesses should provide more funding but let's not turn our universities into their extra research arms and our professors into their glorified employees like they do now in many leading US universities.

The latest to whine about that is Professor Tony Chan Fan-cheong, the head of the University of Science and Technology. I know, every time a university chief or the Science Park CEO warns ad nauseam about Hong Kong losing its competitive edge, we report it like it's "Very Serious News". Well, it's not. Neither are university rankings. Yes, it's good advertising or bad press depending whether you get a good or bad ranking. But most of these surveys are meaningless. They are not done for any real motive to find great schools, rather because it's an easy way to attract readers who are parents, as well as advertisers and sponsors.

And that is just part of our obsession with competitiveness that is most worrying. Referring to the likes of Peking University and Tsinghua University, Professor Chan said they are working hard to raise standards. "They have global ambition and great students," he said. "That's the competition we're up against. We have to keep running to stay in place."

Well, go to local campuses today and you will find half the students speaking Putonghua.

In a letter written shortly before he died, Gustave Flaubert wrote: "I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a tide of merde is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it." Buried in merde is a widespread idea to run universities like a competitive business.