Mortal Blow Part II: HKU’s reputation and rankings with UK students, profs – HKU and HK’s academic reputation abroad

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Controversy at HKU may impact its reputational dimension in international rankings, but quantitative measures may compensate. An examination of recent rankings, their in-depth composition and how students see them.


Rankings, with a grain of salt

According to the Times Higher Education’s online World Universities Ranking Tables, the past six years have seen a precipitous decline Hong Kong Universities statistics compared to  2011 when HKU was amongst the 21 best universities in the world. In the recently published  2016 rankings, the university dropped 23 places on the list to 44.

That wasn’t the worst. Hong Kong University hit the 34th place in 2012, the 35th place in 2013, 43rd in 2014 leading to the all times low, 51st position in 2015.   For all six years the number of students enrolled in the university remained 19,835, the percentage of international students 38% and the student:staff ratio 17.60% remain unchanged.

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From these rankings, analysis of the  statistics shows the impact of the 2014 developments on Hong Kong University.

From 2013 to 2014 the University of Hong Kong noted a 21.43% drop in teaching, 1.71% drop in the international outlook category and a 18,63% drop in the research sector. The lists did note a positive change in 2015 in comparison of the 2014 academic year with 5.85% increase of citations, 3.86% increase of research, 1.99% increase of the international outlook, 0.81% for teaching but the industry income further dropped 1,58% more leading to 56%.


Break it down

From 2014 to 2016 the teaching ranking (based on the  reputational survey (15%), the staff-to-student ratio (2.25%), the doctorate-to-bachelors ratio (2.25%), the doctorates awarded-to-academic-staff ratio (6%) and the institutional income (2.25%; defined below)) dropped 3,91%.

By contrast, through the passage of two academic years the international outlook of staff, students and research (measured by the international-to-domestic-student ratio, the international-to-domestic-staff ratio, and international collaboration) improved 23,29% . The volume, income and reputation of the research conducted by the Hong Kong University (defined by a reputational survey (18%), the research income (6%) and the research productivity (6%)) saw a growth with a raise of 3.02%.

Citations also improved, rising by 13,82% but the greatest growth was noticed in the international outlook sector which grew by 23,29%. The industry income or knowledge transfer, is determined by how much research income an institution earns from industry and the institution’s ability to attract funding in the commercial markets of Hong Kong, contrarily dropped by 6.84%, in comparison with 2014 resulting to a negative -5,34% in 2016. However, the rises were not enough to get the university on its original place and that is why for the 2016 results (published in 2015), the university dropped again to  44th place, 23 spots down since 2011.

The rankings, for all the criticism leveled at them, have some weight. Many students in the competitive global market base their choice of which school to attend based on these rankings. Usually the higher you score,  the brighter the minds you attract to your campus, increasing your standing in rankings in a virtuous circle.


Do you believe the rankings?

Students look at the rankings, but also how they are designed, what the trajectory of particular schools is and how that will impact on their personal future. Mr Lü  adds, “I am aware of the recent scandals regarding the appointment of vice-principal in HKU. I believe that the international reputation of the University has been damaged due to the fact that the radical confrontations between the student representatives and the university council staffs have been widely reported by the media. The appointment of vice-principal should be an internal issue of the university and should not require media attention. However, the fact that members of the university cannot properly handle the incident portrays a negative image to the general public. Additionally, media reports unveil that the university’s operations are in fact closely tied with politics. This seriously undermines the academic freedom of the university and confidence of the general public in the quality of education provided by HKU. In the future, I believe this may reduce the number of exchange students choosing HKU, as well as the ability of HKU to attract talent to the university.”

Tang Kai Tsung Louis, a first year Marketing and Finance student at Lancaster University says, “Political factors is one of the criteria of university rating, which means political issues led to the decline in the world university ranking of HKU.”

Hammond Mo, a second year law student at the University of Central Lancashire originally from Hong Kong says, “university ratings can be affected by all different kind of factors and sometimes [the lists] are unreliable. I think the reason of rating drops is last year’s revolution. The students were out protesting, having as a result  [the suspension of their learning.]”

Universities as well do take under consideration the lists and the the impressions they create to both domestic and international students they serve and that is why the university of Hong Kong is trying its best to gain the students’ trust, proving that even after the protests, incidents with the appointment of professors democracy will find a way to be achieved in Hong Kong as the statistic analysis of 2016 suggests.

Almost every sector on the list saw major improvements comparing to the aftermath of the 2014 suggesting that although there is a long way until the university is back amongst the academic institutions stars where it was in 2011, a lot of effort is put down since then and this is the highway to excellence.   

While students take note of rankings, it appears that they approach them with a grain of salt and do look into the nuances of individual categories and how they may be influenced by recent events. They weigh those factors up against their own criteria to make their decisions of which institute suits them.

So for those who criticise rankings for leading to simplistic decision making, it would seem to be that the decision makers aren’t so simplistic when choosing their career developers after all.  Hong Kong University may still have a reputational fighting chance if students like what  they see in the details of university rankings.