Uni numbers game can be just rank

Editorial | Mary Ma 29 Nov 2017

Facing accusations that his university has rigged student numbers to enhance ranking on one of the international charts, City University of Hong Kong president Way Kuo says he's commissioning an auditor to investigate the figures.

It's a necessary step to take if CityU is to restore its reputation amid the scandal.

Even Kuo cannot deny the discrepancy between the student figures submitted to rating agency Quacquarelli Symonds and to the University Grants Committee. The latter is suspicious since it makes no sense for an institution receiving UGC subsidies for 13,283 places in 2016-2017 to have, as reported to QS, only 9,307 students.

One of the figures must be wrong. However, it's incredible that a CityU spokesman is saying that the student data supplied by all local universities differs from those submitted to the UGC due to different definitions and operating models used.

The public expects the audit promised by Kuo to be conducted with the greatest transparency, as not only is the Kowloon Tong university's reputation at stake, but also public funds, for subsidies payable to an institution of higher learning hinge on the number of places being offered.

Global rankings have become an indispensable part of the norm. The craving for a more lofty slot isn't a bad thing since it can be viewed as a cause for improvement. Aren't we trying to do well at school and perform well at work, in return for better opportunities and promotions?

Universities shouldn't be blamed for being realistic in striving to move up this or that chart.

For an educational institution that is relatively young compared to its peers - CityU was founded in 1984 - it's always about a cycle in which it can attract quality teaching staff and students. In order to achieve that, it would be beneficial to have a higher reputation in the first place, and an international ranking is always a starting point. This can create a healthy cycle as long as it's reasonably done.

But there have been concerns the pursuit for a higher ranking is being overdone as competition intensifies in the academic world. If the student numbers-rigging accusation is unfortunately proven true by the investigation, it would only confirm such fears, and the case may only be the tip of a more widespread situation.

Veteran educators, including former Lingnan University president Edward Chen Kwan-yiu, and academic Andy Kwan Cheuk-chiu, have cautioned the pursuit of higher rankings has become so excessive that the situation is spinning out of control.

It would be in the public interest to take heed of the educators' warnings. When professors devote more time to research, they will have less time for students. Preoccupation with rankings can make a healthy cycle vicious.

There are so many ranking tables nowadays that it's difficult to tell which one is more credible. While CityU is ranked among the top 50 universities in the world in the QS, why does it fall outside the top 100 by Times Higher Education?

In the drive for excellence, always allow good common sense to prevail.

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