6 December 2017
by Ka Ho Mok

Rankings race is costly

Central government incentives have led to massive gains at the best universities, but also intensified education inequalities, writes Professor Ka Ho Mok in South China Morning Post.

Mainland China is still waiting for its top universities to gain entry to the exclusive ranks of the world’s 10 elite institutions. Incentives aimed at ensuring its institutions can compete with the best have led to its two leading universities, both in Beijing – Tsinghua University and Peking University – being ranked 25th and 38th, respectively, in the 2018 QS World University rankings. Shanghai’s Fudan University is ranked 40th. The University of Hong Kong (HKU) is ranked 26th, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) 30th. The rival Times Higher Education World University Rankings places Peking equal 27th with Edinburgh and New York, and Tsinghua 30th, with HKU 40th and HKUST 44th.

American and British institutions dominate the top five in each of the two rankings: the QS ranks Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at No 1, Stanford, second, Harvard third and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) fourth, with Britain’s Cambridge fifth. The Times Higher Education rankings put Oxford first, Cambridge second, Caltech and Stanford joint third and MIT fifth.

Beijing’s commitment to investment has helped Chinese universities to show clear signs of improvement. The central government’s “Double World Class Project” (or shuang yiliu), running since 2015, offers funds to an elite group of the nation’s universities and academic disciplines.

In September, the Ministry of Education published its long-awaited list of 42 universities that were eligible for funding to achieve world-class status. Officials identified 36 institutions that were “highly research intensive universities”, which they classified as “Type A”; a further six were listed as “research intensive universities”, or Type B; plus another 95 institutions that they considered had academic disciplines with strategic importance.

The incentive schemes have seen mainland universities steadily improving. Only two Chinese universities were able to break into the top 300 in 2003, according to Shanghai Jiao Tong University, but by 2015, 15 had achieved this feat.

There has been a steady rise of six mainland institutions – Tsinghua, Peking, University of Science and Technology of China, Fudan, Jiao Tong and Zhejiang – in three different rankings: Times Higher Education, QS, and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong.

These rankings are evaluated using a series of metrics: for example, the Times Higher Education rankings judge research-intensive universities across all of their core missions: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook, and use 13 calibrated performance indicators, including the number of research papers per academic staff.

The QS rankings use six metrics, with a 40 per cent weighting for a university’s reputation – based on the quality of its teaching and research – 10 per cent on its reputation among employers, 20 per cent on its teacher/student ratio, 20 per cent on the number of citations for research papers per faculty, and 5 per cent each for a university’s international faculty ratio and international student ratio.

Beijing’s financial support for a select few universities has sparked increased competition among mainland institutions, which has led to the stratification of universities.

A variety of measures have been used to attract talent from around the world, including overseas Chinese, to carry out research at Chinese campuses. The mainland’s top ranked universities have tried to recruit capable faculty members all over the world with attractive compensation packages.

The Chinese returnees have found the labour market increasingly competitive as a result of the steady stream of students returning from abroad and the growing number of students who have obtained overseas university qualifications and work experiences.

A study carried out by New Oriental, a corporation promoting international education in China, in 2015, estimated that the expected return on investment (ROI) after studying abroad was 49 per cent for those who spend five years or more abroad, compared with 18 per cent for those who spend three years abroad.

Another report focusing on salary gaps shows that faculty members from engineering and sciences are offered better compensation packages than those working in humanities and social sciences. Meanwhile, returnees with overseas academic qualifications are paid three to four times as much as local graduates.

It is, therefore, not surprising that there are growing tensions between locally educated academics and those returning or recruited from abroad.

There are a number of “hot” topics confronting the mainland government as it strives to produce world-class universities. The “ranking fever” that now exists means we need to be cautious when we look at the placings of different institutions. Beijing’s “preferential treatment”, including targeted funding for the top-ranked universities, has intensified educational inequality. The table of the best-ranked mainland universities shows that the success has been limited largely to a handful of top educational institutions. Will the mainland’s weaker universities also be able to make big gains and compete with the best in the world, or will they remain in the lower tiers?

If Beijing cannot properly address the problem of the widening gap between the “haves” and “have nots” – particularly the regional variations revealed by the “Double World Class” initiative, with top university clusters located in the areas of Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing – such a stratification process will certainly produce different social classes of students.

How will the government handle the growing regional disparities as a result of the preferential treatment? And how will the nation’s elite universities sustain their rankings?

As greater emphasis is placed on the importance of research and knowledge transfer-related activities, students at mainland universities have begun to complain about the decline in the quality of teaching. They argue that many university professors focus on research and the publishing of academic papers, which has compromised the quality of lectures.

How will the central government handle student expectations and their many competing demands when educational inequality is increasingly focusing on higher education institutions? Also, how will the authorities tackle social mobility issues when more and more graduates are encountering the nation’s uncertain labour market?