Rankings ‘must change’ in response to rise of China

Rebalancing of global higher education promises end of era in which institutions all ‘strive to be the same as Harvard’, says professor

February 10, 2019
ratings rankings

Research metrics and the university rankings that are constructed on the back of them need to be reshaped to keep up with the growing strength of Chinese higher education, according to a Beijing-based assessment expert.

Hamish Coates, a professor in Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education, said that Western-oriented metrics were struggling to keep pace with an increasingly complex higher education landscape in which universities’ missions were more varied and their achievements were judged in a regional rather than a global context.

“We may be reaching the end of this singular striving to all be the same as Harvard,” said Professor Coates, formerly a professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne.

This trend was already evident in China, Professor Coates argued. “There’s been a shift away from 20 years of a unidimensional way of seeing higher education to a bidimensional [perspective] that takes into account not just research outcomes but also contributions in distinct fields and regions,” he said.

“None of that gets picked up in these metrics, which were conceived 20 years ago and are now waning in their usefulness.

“It isn’t as sexy to publish that Jinan University makes an interesting contribution to its province as it is to say how many universities have come close to Harvard standard. But that is the more complex reality we find ourselves in as we move into a world that isn’t all seeking to be like the east coast of the US or the hinterland around London.”

Professor Coates said that China had, to some extent, “curated the rankings movement around its own benchmarking needs” when Shanghai Jiao Tong University constructed the first globally recognised university league table in 2003.

But he argued that with the recent advent of the Double First Class initiative, which will channel significant amounts of additional funding to 42 universities, the country needed new ways of evaluating its own progress.

“The university that studies silk and produces the best silk in the world will be recognised in terms of that distinct contribution,” Professor Coates said. “There’s no pretence that that’s going to be benchmark-able against silk research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

Professor Coates said that Western-focused metrics often failed to capture the reams of research literature published in Chinese – or, for that matter, in Spanish. And they had an increasingly hard time distinguishing between nationality and geography as Chinese-born academics – who are estimated to produce some 50 per cent of global science – moved between countries.

He Lianzhen, vice-president of international affairs at Zhejiang University near Shanghai, said that her institution recognised the “importance and necessity” of rankings as a mirror of its strengths and shortcomings. “But we believe a good university should not and will not take grade and ranking as its priority,” she said.

“No matter what indicators the rankings use, as long as we’re doing well in research and education, we’ll do well in rankings.”

Times Higher Education, in addition to its research-focused World University Rankings, has pioneered the development of teaching-led rankings informed by student engagement surveys, and is due to release its first data on universities’ efforts towards meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals next month. It has also indicated that the 2020 World University Rankings, which will be released in September, are likely to be the last using the current methodology, with consultation planned on proposed changes.


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