Asia University Rankings 2016: Don’t lose your head – rankings are but one measure of success

Wherever your institution sits in the Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings 2016, there is always more to the results than meets the eye, says Peter Mathieson

June 20, 2016
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Browse the full list of the top 200 institutions in this year's rankings

Should universities and their presidents care about reputation? Of course we should! Therefore, it follows that we should care about how that reputation is assessed, publicised, modified or massaged.

Our reputation locally, regionally and internationally affects our future in so many ways. Prospective students, their parents, friends and teachers; prospective staff; current students and staff; alumni and other stakeholders all take a keen interest in the standing of a university.

Rankings provide a convenient shortcut to the information that we seek. Although university presidents, including me, are on record for our caution about the interpretation of rankings, and for our fervent wish that people would study the methodology behind the headlines – including the frequent methodological changes, the variability between the rankings from different agencies and the risks of selective usage of the data – we all accept that rankings are an important phenomenon in our sector.

In January, Times Higher Education published the 2016 ranking of the world’s most international universities, and we were delighted to see the University of Hong Kong (HKU) ranked at number three.

In 2015 in the same ranking, HKU was number 52. Can I claim that my internationalisation strategy is directly responsible for that meteoric rise? No: the major reason for the change is that in 2015, China and Hong Kong were taken together in calculating the rankings, whereas in 2016 they were treated separately.

Since we have many students and staff from mainland China and many co-publications with mainland authors, this methodological change favoured us. A glance at the locations of other universities in the top 10 of that ranking, which include institutions from Qatar, Luxembourg, Macao and Singapore as well as four universities from Switzerland, makes it obvious that this ranking favours universities in places that, by virtue of their scale, are necessarily more likely to have extensive international links for their recruitment of students and staff and for their publication outputs.

So thank you very much to THE for the third-place ranking, but we are not getting overly excited. We believe that HKU, despite already being a very international university, will benefit from further internationalisation, and this forms a major platform of our institutional strategy going forward.

The other headlines of our strategy for the next 10 years are interdisciplinarity, innovation and impact: all quite difficult to measure objectively. We should never forget the things that rankings do not, or cannot, easily measure, including the student experience, community engagement, alumni loyalty, societal impact and creativity/innovation among staff and students.

On the day that I am writing this, one ranking agency released some rankings by subject. HKU is ranked number one in the world for dentistry and in the top 10 in the world for an additional five subjects.

We are encouraged by these results, but do we really have the best dental school on the planet? Our Faculty of Dentistry is small and research-intensive and therefore scores well on this organisation’s particular methodology. We have many reasons to be proud of it, but we cannot say that there is no room for improvement: how do you improve on being number one in the world?

So let us be realistic and honest with ourselves and with the rest of the world. We feel pride and satisfaction when we are highly ranked. We make excuses and point to methodological changes or inconsistencies when we need to explain (or defend) a poor ranking. We “spin” results to our own advantage, quoting selectively from the data. Our detractors can selectively use the data to point out our deficiencies.

For the credibility of the higher education sector worldwide, it is crucial that universities work with the rankings agencies to understand one another’s needs and aims, to improve and enhance the methodologies, to accurately communicate the findings and their interpretation. Both parties need to ensure that rankings are as reliable and as close to the truth as possible.

Human beings are naturally competitive, and this is true of university leaders as much as anyone (perhaps more so!) but we need to keep our feet on the ground, avoid complacency when the results are good and strive for improvements when they are not.

Peter Mathieson
of Hong Kong

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