University rankings should only be a guide for discerning Hongkongers

Albert Cheng says the disparities thrown up by comparing different rankings show why students must do their homework before applying

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 October, 2013, 8:19pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 October, 2013, 12:51am

Recently, many local papers prominently published the news that the University of Hong Kong was ranked 43rd in the latest World University Rankings, put together by Times Higher Education. This was a substantial drop from the previous year, when it was rated 35th.

The reports caused a lot of anxiety in local academic circles, with many sympathising with HKU's "demise".

The picture painted by this annual assessment is rather unrealistic

In fact, HKU chiefs shouldn't fret over the drop in ranking, as it is almost impossible to fairly compare universities around the world. The performance indicators cannot accurately provide balanced and fair comparisons to grade universities from country to country.

Furthermore, these annual rankings are published by the British magazine Times Higher Education, with data supplied by Thomson Reuters, which means the assessment may be biased towards Western institutions. HKU chiefs shouldn't take the ranking so seriously.

The rankings have also raised eyebrows among other top universities in the United States, with many prestigious American educational institutions being given quite low rankings, surprisingly. The picture painted by this annual assessment is rather unrealistic, to say the least.

It's widely known that the most prestigious American university rankings are provided by the US News & World Report. The latest top 10, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford, are all familiar names to Hongkongers.

Strangely enough, one of the Ivy League universities, Dartmouth College, which is ranked No 10 by the US News & World Report, stands at 126 in the Times Higher Education list. Another Ivy League institution - Brown University - is placed at No 52, but is ranked 14th by the US News & World Report.

These universities are ranked even lower than HKU in the Times list, which is hard to believe.

Honestly speaking, if you were a parent and your child had been accepted by both Ivy League universities and HKU, which one would you choose? We all know the answer.

When choosing a university, Hong Kong people often focus on the popular ones and overlook the prestigious universities that are not as well known in Hong Kong.

In fact, some really good ones are overlooked by Hongkongers. For example, Tufts University is ranked 28th by the US News & World Report, but 80th by Times Higher Education.

It's a similar picture in Canada. For example, the University of Western Ontario, the alma mater of both noted financial columnist Tony Tsoi Tung-ho and World Health Organisation director general Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, did not even make it to the top 200 in the Times Higher Education rankings. Does it sound reasonable?

In fact, choices should be made by assessing a school's local reputation because each school has its strengths and weaknesses. Students should choose a school according to their own academic standards rather than just chasing prestigious institutions.

There are endless examples of outstanding universities, but one stands out - the University of Notre Dame. It's ranked 18th by the US News & World Report and was voted as one of the top five dream schools by American parents in a survey conducted by the consulting company Princeton Review.

Notre Dame is famed for its pre-med school, with a majority of its graduates being able to get into top US medical schools. It's definitely a top choice in the US when it comes to studying medicine.

Its other strengths include business, law and architecture. Its business school has been ranked No 1 in the US for four consecutive years by Bloomberg Businessweek magazine.

To local students, Notre Dame may be a much better choice than a number of Ivy League institutions.

Notre Dame also has a highly flexible admission approach, which allows students to have first and second choices, so that they can switch to their secondary choices in their second year. The goal is to provide students with wider choice.

It may be lesser known to Hongkongers, but Notre Dame is the alma mater of many local luminaries, such as property and trading entrepreneur Christopher Cheng Wai-chee and his brother Edgar Cheng Wai-kin.

The Cheng family helped set up an exchange programme between Notre Dame and HKU and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The Li Ka Shing Foundation has also helped to boost admissions from the Greater China region.

Even with its prestige, Notre Dame is still easier to enter than other famous institutions because it is hoping to boost the ratio of its international students.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator, and the parent of a son who graduated from the University of Notre Dame, and another son who is currently attending it.