Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reported on the release of the latest rankings of world universities. My focus here will mainly be on the rise of the Chinese universities in these rankings, but I will also comment on the rankings themselves.
The article notes that
…the cumulative reputation of Chinese research institutions is swelling. In the latest ranking, seven Chinese schools cracked the top 200. In 2014, there were just two. Peking University and Tsinghua University topped Chinese schools, ranking 27th and 30th, respectively.
However, the author pours cold water on that achievement:
The rise of Chinese universities also comes as the Chinese Communist Party has invested heavily in research universities. Elizabeth Perry, a professor at Harvard and expert on China, said the Chinese are actively “gaming” the system.
“They are hiring an army of postdocs whose responsibility is to produce articles,” she said. “They are changing the nature of a university from an educational institution to basically a factory that is producing what these rankings reward.”
Xia Qiong, a professor at Wuhan University in central China, also criticized what she described as an excessive fixation on publication metrics in Chinese universities.
This is true. The Chinese government has been pressing its universities to produce more research papers ever since the government discovered that the world rankings (include a much-respected one conducted yearly by China’s own Shanghai Jiaotong University) are based heavily on research output. And from what I hear, it’s actually worse than what Perry says, as it is sheer emphasis on quantity, not quality.
On one level, all this might be dismissed as one of the more excessive examples of the importance of Face, 面子 in East Asian cultures. Though that might be considered an overworked stereotype — we all care about Face to some degree — it is indeed a big factor in this case of university rankings.
I would relate it to the “Harvard or Bust” obsession that many Chinese immigrants to the U.S. have, the Tiger Mom syndrome. That is partly due to a lack of understanding of the fact that one’s academic pedigree is of less central importance to career success in the U.S. compared to China. But as many Chinese-Americans will tell you, there is often a big 面子 factor at work too — “keeping up with the Zhous” may entail getting your kids into universities at least as prestigious as what your neighbors accomplished.
This gives rise to thriving cottage industries on achieving that Harvard goal. Though of course such entrepreneurs come in all ethnicities, the Chinese ones are especially numerous and lucrative, as I reported in my 2014 blog posting, “Gaming the College Admissions System, Big Data Style.”
It has also given rise to several lawsuits spearheaded by Chinese immigrants opposing the use of Affirmative Action (AA) in college admissions, and even opposition to finer racial categorization in state data collection, the latter being viewed as a “slippery slope” to the former. (I disagree with the anti-AA lawsuits, i.e. I support AA, and will write a detailed blog post on this when I have time.)
The term gaming the system, in both the WSJ article and my blog posting, is not very flattering. It puts the Chinese government in a bad light, and probably creates resentment among U.S. college admissions officers. In that sense, both the Chinese government and Chinese-immigrants’ kids lose.
But that is minor, compared to the bigger pictures in these two cases. China is really harming its economic potential by obsessing over quantity instead of quality, both in research and teaching. The complaint by Chinese academics that their graduates suffer from the phenomenon of “high scores, low ability” speaks volumes. The Tiger Moms are obstructing their children’s potential as well, not only economically for the same reason but also socially and even psychologically. Actually, the counterproductive nature of Tiger Mom-ism was the subject of the first post I made in this blog.
What about those university rankings themselves? As a native of Los Angeles and an alumnus of UCLA, I ought to be proud that the latest rankings have UCLA ranked above UC Berkeley. But it is simply not true, at least for the fields I have expertise in, math, statistics and computer science. Any effort to develop formulas to determine rankings is doomed to failure, I believe, and even then the practical value of rankings is questionable. Actually I think the old-fashioned method of surveying academics for their seat-of-the-pants ratings works fairly well, albeit with a time lag. But even the most careful, meaningful ranking system will be gamed, including to some degree in the U.S.
Well, hey, all you Tiger Moms out there. Whoa, Harvard is now ranked only Number 6 in the world! Time for “Oxbridge or Bust”?