China and Hong Kong less international in social sciences

Universities in region have lower share of foreign staff in subject in wake of academic restrictions and focus on local hiring

November 6, 2019
Tram travelling uphill, Victoria Peak, Hong Kong
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THE World University Rankings 2020 by subject: social sciences

Universities in China and Hong Kong are declining on measures of internationalisation in the social sciences, according to the latest Times Higher Education data – a trend that could reflect the tightening restrictions on academics in the mainland.

While institutions in the country have generally improved their positions in the 2020 THE social sciences rankings, their internationalisation scores have declined, largely because of lower scores for the proportion of international staff.

On average, 8 per cent of social sciences staff at universities in mainland China are international, down from 10 per cent last year, while 7 per cent of students are international, down from 8 per cent (based on universities that appeared in both the 2020 and 2019 editions of the ranking).

Meanwhile, 54 per cent of social sciences staff at Hong Kong institutions are international, down from 61 per cent in last year’s table. The percentage of international publications in the social sciences in Hong Kong also dropped, from 51 per cent to 47 per cent.

Even some prestigious institutions in the region have been affected; at Tsinghua University, the share of foreign staff in the social sciences declined from 18.2 per cent to 14 per cent in the space of 12 months. The share of international staff in the social sciences at the University of Hong Kong slipped from 70.7 per cent to 64.8 per cent.

Michael O’Sullivan, associate professor in the department of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said “restrictions on access to archives and restrictions on what can be published and taught play a major role in making most universities in mainland China less attractive to international academics”.

“For example, a paper I [submitted] a few years ago comparing Hong Kong to Ireland was pulled by a Beijing publishing house because, the press claimed, Hong Kong must not be regarded as a former colony,” he said.

However, he said, academic freedom was “still highly respected and cherished” in Hong Kong, and the city’s decline in the share of foreign scholars in the social sciences could be a result of “less eagerness to look outside for new hires over the past 10 years”.

“Perhaps in the past, there was far too much emphasis on hiring international lecturers and professors from well-known universities in the UK and the US, often at the expense of local scholars with good PhDs. Today, there is perhaps more confidence in hiring locally. Many of the local scholars have also returned from abroad with PhDs,” he said.

The THE subject rankings for business and economics, education and law have also been updated for 2020.

The four subject rankings are based on the same metrics as the overall THE World University Rankings, but the weightings are different.

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