150 Under 50 Rankings 2016: Focus on mission, not measurements

Rankings efforts must not detract from university mission, says Hong Kong University of Science and Technology president Tony Chan

April 6, 2016
Cable car system, Ocean Park, Hong Kong, China
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Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s vision from day one was to become a globally recognised international research university. When it was founded in 1991, many thought it was all but impossible, except in the wildest of dreams; but 25 years later, we have proved our doubters wrong. The university is gaining recognition, and as a result of the hard work everyone at HKUST has put in, we have seen our rankings rise steadily in every category.

We are ranked in the top tier in multiple international university rankings. Our determination to achieve excellence has been recognised by our peers around the world: HKUST has attained a score of 70 per cent, the highest proportion of research work recognised as either internationally excellent or world-leading among the eight government-funded institutions in Hong Kong in the 2014 HK research assessment exercise. Our stellar performance in rankings has helped us to attract quality faculty and international students, and equally important, opened the doors to many world-leading higher institutions with which we have forged a strong and ever-growing network of partnerships.

In my view, our good rankings are the fruits of our pursuit of academic excellence – they are a measurement tool for us to look at, as educators, on how we compare with our global peers. But HKUST is by no means driven by rankings in our endeavours. There have long been criticisms in academia of the flaws of rankings; they are sometimes perceived to suffer from disproportionate weighting of indicators, flawed methodologies, biased indicators and proxies and a lack of transparency.

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A majority of rankings give more weight to research activities than to teaching and service to society, when both are important elements of a research university’s mission. The evaluation used by rankings agencies also favours the English-language world, which may lead to an unhealthy development that underrates local research and language. The use of major prizes such as the Nobel prize to represent the achievement of universities amounts to “measuring the peak”, and assumes that one person reaching the top means that the rest of the organisation is also excellent. Such proxies favour the old and comprehensive universities and put specialised institutions in a disadvantageous position.

As rankings are frequently used by stakeholders for all kinds of purposes, ranking bodies would do the academic community a great service by continuously reviewing and refining their methodologies to rank and measure universities in a just and fair way. I would like to take this opportunity to make some suggestions.

First, make the methodology reproducible, so that given the data, the same results can be reproduced and validated by others. This will be a good use of rankings that is beneficial to both universities and stakeholders.

Second, make the methodology more transparent. This will boost the credibility of rankings. By disclosing more about how rankings data are used, it would be possible for the academic community to subject the computation of scores to scrutiny and criticism. While this could cause discussions and debates, this might also be a good way for the ranking bodies to collect feedback, explain the rationale behind the methodological design and fine-tune their methodologies.

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Third, bring in normalisation where possible to make comparison meaningful. For example, the number of articles and citations are not good indicators as they often favour large universities; whereas performance per capita gives a relatively fair view as it takes into account the size of institutions.

The current development of rankings and the responses by the global higher education sectors raise the question: is the tail wagging the dog? Are the universities becoming more rankings-driven or rankings-informed? Rankings have become a fact of life. However, we should not set rankings as the target. Instead, universities should use the rankings as a tool to enhance their basic mission. As a university president, it is very important to keep a clear mind and stay true to your own mission. While aiming to maintain or improve the competitiveness of our universities, we should not forget the fundamental questions that guide the development of universities: why do we exist? What are the roles of a university? And what are our responsibilities to society?

Rankings, when utilised in the right manner, should be a useful reference tool for every university to discover what areas they are doing well in, and what needs improvement. As educators, we should maximise the positive impact that rankings bring, while also remaining cautious about the potential risks.

Tony Chan
President, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST)

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