University rankings may be overlooking a key aspect

November 03, 2016 10:58
As universities focus too much on research, teaching quality could be compromised. Photo: HKEJ

Whenever there is a new report on world university rankings, it always grabs wide media attention in Hong Kong.

For example, the recent rankings released by US News and World Report, in which the top universities of Hong Kong had dropped several places, received quite a lot of coverage in the local press.

The report has fueled fresh concern that the quality of higher education in the city may be on the decline.

However, while many people are concerned about the world rankings of the universities in which their children or they themselves have enrolled, they might be overlooking an important fact.

It is this: the criteria of the rankings often put a lot of emphasis on research achievements and funding and academic exchanges of universities, rather than the teaching quality and the abilities of the graduates.

In other words, the world university ranking reports don't necessarily reflect the actual quality of education the universities offer.

As a matter of fact, the competence and abilities of graduates, which many of these world ranking charts have often neglected, should be seen as an important measure of the actual education quality of universities.

According to a recent report published by the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), an initiative launched by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), countries that are turning out the best university graduates in terms of their linguistic and mathematical competence, as well as their ability in resolving problems using information and communication technologies (ICT) are, quite surprisingly, Japan, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland, while the US and Britain, where most of the world's most famous universities are found, are ranked behind them.

Even though the PIAAC report also has its limitations and might not be able to give us a full picture, it does remind us of one thing: we should focus more on teaching quality and the ability to nurture talent, rather than look overwhelmingly at research capability, when we are rating a university.

Unfortunately, most universities allocate resources as well base their promotion decisions mostly on research results, a move that is going to take toll on teaching quality.

And that raises a fundamental question: while we often hear people complain about the deterioration of the job performance of our university graduates, is it really their fault, or is it because our universities are just not teaching our young people well?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 2

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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