University World Rankings and Appraisals
Famous American and British universities again dominate the top spots in the 2009 World University Rankings published by The Times Higher Education Supplement in Britain. Five Hong Kong universities are listed among the world's top 200, with The University of Hong Kong ranking 24th, second only to University of Tokyo among the Asian contingent.
Appraisals as a form of guarantee
Before the 1960s, few people paid heed to quality management. People did not look upon quality appraisal as a yardstick against which to measure the success of a career or product. People simply boasted about their own products or relied upon word-of-mouth. Higher education institutions were no exception. Auto manufacturers played a pioneering role by offering a warranty on their cars. They first issued a one-year warranty, and later extended the warranty to three or five years. Some even offered a lifelong warranty to cover certain essential parts. Universities are not commercial enterprises. Nevertheless, they are members of society, and therefore play a dual role: 1) they provide higher education to cultivate talented people to meet the needs of society and their quality can be judged by professional standards; 2) they are employed by society and funded through taxpayers' money, and are therefore duty-bound to create new knowledge and carry out scientific research. Their achievements and their students' performance should be evaluated periodically.
Teaching evaluation, which started in the US in the late 1960s, is adopted by many universities in the world to ascertain and promote teaching and research quality. Teaching and academic research are two primary tasks of a university. The appraisal of teachers and research personnel is similar to the assessment of performance in other walks of life. In the past 40 years or so the two principal norms to evaluate a teacher's teaching and research have been widely adopted in American institutions of higher education. They judge a teacher's performance according to student feedback and evaluate their research achievements according to the quality of published papers. This kind of appraisal has become popular in universities throughout the world. It seems to me that the practical Western method of judging the quality of a product on the basis of evidence, together with their appraisal methods, has been popularised.
Expert appraisal a cornerstone of university evaluations
University appraisals place an emphasis on peer reviews. This should not be reduced to a political tool or a way to vent one's biased feelings. The recently published world university rankings are an appraisal of the quality of universities around the world by a professional appraisal organisation. People may have different opinions about the norms they have used, but they have to agree that these norms are objective and comparable. What's more, they adopted the widely-accepted peer review method, instead of resorting to politicised or non-professional appraisals. Universities can be ranked differently according to different published lists because various appraisal organisations use different norms. This does not mean the appraisal concept is wrong.
World university rankings based on objective and peer reviews can certainly serve as a reference point. Whether you're in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the mainland or in a foreign country, many companies look at the university an applicant has graduated from and the university's rankings when they make recruiting decisions. Failing this threshold test, applicants may not even be granted an interview. Some companies even make it clear that they will not interview applicants who graduate from low-ranking universities. Even starting salaries can be dependent upon the ranking of an applicant's university. High school graduates choose their target universities according to their popularity and rankings. Some people suggest that if a Hong Kong student is able to attend The University of Hong Kong, they will not recommend applying to other universities. This may be a lopsided view but it implies an appraisal in their advice. From its ranking among the world's best universities published by The Times Higher Education Supplement, it is evident why The University of Hong Kong is a popular choice for high school graduates in Hong Kong.
Discipline rankings a key reference point
A university's niche excellence is often not revealed in the overall university rankings. Therefore, the rankings of individual disciplines are sometimes a more important reference factor. Universities can improve their teaching and research quality by analysing the change in rankings for specific disciplines. This is another function of the appraisal. As a matter of fact, I don't think it is wise for a high school graduate to choose a university according to its overall ranking without considering the ranking of particular disciplines. In Hong Kong, for example, if you want to choose a business programme, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology will probably be the first choice, while City University of Hong Kong definitely offers the best engineering courses. To choose the university ahead of the discipline is a common phenomenon in Hong Kong but one seldom seen in Europe or North America. As a result, social resources are wasted and young students are not offered their best choice. High schools have a responsibility to advise their graduates on how to choose the most appropriate disciplines in accordance with the students' best interests. Measures should be taken to avoid recommending low-ranking disciplines in high-ranking universities.
Similarly, MA candidates or PhD candidates should give priority to the selection of an outstanding supervisor who shares their interest and profession. The ranking of a university or programme is a secondary factor they should take into consideration.
International rankings a useful index
The quality index of different rankings is worthy of closer scrutiny and consideration. It is not advisable to overindulge in world rankings. However, they do offer some valuable guidance. Without an international appraisal, universities tend to boast about their achievements, which can lead to confusion. Many people hold the opinion that academic grades are not overly important because they are not the only yardstick to measure a student's success. But without grades, how can a student judge whether they have made any progress? I have never heard of a student being proud of getting low grades because they think marks are unimportant. Will students stage protests because they get high grades? Examinations were abolished during the Cultural Revolution in mainland China, I heard, but the usual practice was reinstated immediately after its conclusion.
Whether you pursue an academic life or work in the service industry or manufacturing sector, quality is the primary consideration. World rankings have reference value. In a word, the norms and detailed rules used to evaluate teaching and research quality at universities are by no means perfect but the merits of the appraisal concept are indisputable. No one can deny the fact that the result of the appraisal is of great value as a reference tool. The public sector should not turn a blind eye to the appraisal system. Nor should they meddle with the running of universities by hindering the progress of higher education in Hong Kong.
[The source text was published in Ming Pao Daily.]
November 19, 2009