University rankings may not tell the whole story

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 9:55am

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) boasts that "we stand with the top universities in the world" on its website - first in Hong Kong, first in Asia and 23rd in the world, according to one global league table it quotes.

Rankings - when they are high - are inevitably something to shout about. They are used by institutions the world over as kite marks to attract the best students and staff, as well as funding for research and new infrastructure.

Hong Kong students and parents also seem to love rankings. In the Darwinian order of things, they naturally want to be identified with "the best". Attending a top university is perceived to be a key to a good career and prosperity, although if we look around us we know that this is not necessarily true.

Universities give little information about what those ranking scores actually mean in their marketing material, and many students and parents spend little time finding out.

At a recent British Council exhibition, low-ranked universities bemoaned that the first question potential students asked was their ranking status - even youngsters with academic records that suggested they should be looking at the bottom, rather than top, of the tables.

There are no local league tables in Hong Kong. But institutions that do well in the global rankings are happy to use those as proxies. Universities that do not feature in that league are not, unsurprisingly, fighting for a local alternative. Yet is the informal ranking of the eight government-funded institutions any fairer?

Universities give little information about what ranking scores actually mean in their marketing material, and many students and parents spend little time finding out.

Rankings organisations use a wide range of criteria to come up with their scores. Within the Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities is the number of Nobel Prize winners an institution has produced. US News National University Rankings include "alumni giving" among its 16 criteria.

Research output features prominently in QS World University Rankings and Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Yet how relevant are those criteria to the would-be student's immediate prospects for quality teaching and learning?

Ranking positions, which vary from one league to another should also be taken with a pinch of salt. HKU is 35th in the most recent Times Higher league, compared with 23rd in the QS. But there is a consistency in the top 10. Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge commonly top the global tables, even if the exact pecking order may change.

The World Reputation Rankings, released this month, placed HKU at 36, up from 39, and HKUST and Chinese University in the top 100. Yet Phil Baty, the rankings' editor, was up front in admitting this ranking was "based on nothing more than a subjective judgment", a survey of 16,639 academics.

The real concern is the effect the pressure of rankings has on institutions; for example, if they cause them to ignore local research agendas that are conducted in the local language to focus on chasing higher-scoring international citations instead. In short, rankings can divert the focus away from the institution's important role in meeting local education needs.

But some will argue that this measuring can spur genuine improvements. If quality of teaching and student experience are criteria, and universities invest in them accordingly, that can only be good for the student.

Parents cannot be blamed for their fixation on rankings. Choosing a university is a life-changing decision and they need all the information they can get. Data, including that from league tables, can help, to be used along with other factors such as the strengths of an institution in a particular subject area, its location, and if it is known to be a fun place to be a student.

League table publishers work with the university sector to improve their criteria. Most online rankings are interactive, so users can drill down by subject area, and find fields such as entry standards and graduate work prospects.

If you know you are not an HKDSE level-five student, you can target your shortlist to those with average entry scores within your range, and start to make a league of your own.

League tables, if used cleverly, are a valuable resource. But that does not mean they should be allowed to act as the tail wagging the education dog.

Katherine Forestier is director of consultancy Education Link