University Rankings, Tiger Moms and (a Bit on) Affirmative Action

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”?


11 thoughts on “University Rankings, Tiger Moms and (a Bit on) Affirmative Action

    • I don’t know about MBA programs, but the above three schools are good illustrations of the problem, in my view. I believe HKU has maintained its quality, while in my opinion CUHK and HKUST have succumbed to the “only quantity matters” mentality. CUHK, which used to have a lot of HK natives, has become dominated by people from inland China with this “quantity” mentality. I have a friend, HK native, who left because he found the environment toxic. HKUST is somewhat international in its faculty, but I just took a look at its Math Dept. faculty, and it too was dominated by names with pinyin spellings, many more than Cantonese ones. Many more of the latter at HKU.


  1. The research numbers in China are also increased by the addition of full time faculty at US institutions being added as faculty members at the Chinese institutions, In the instances I have found, although the individual is a full time faculty member at a US university (one was making $400,000 per year), he is also listed as a full time (not adjunct or visiting) on their website. The faculty members’ research publications frequently list the Chinese university as the first association. The research is primarily funded by US agencies – including DOD.

    I am currently trying to get NIH to advise me as to whether the conduct of a researcher receiving funding is acting within the requirements of several grants with regard to the researcher’s affiliation as a faculty member in China and conducting a significant amount of research in China. The PI and his wife working in his lab have been spending 2.5 months each summer there and collecting over $30K per summer in travel expenses over and above the $60K of salary. The research topic (breast cancer) is not dependent on location. The award is listed to the US university. In his vicinity in the US there are at least 3 other institution/labs doing cancer research.


    • One very important point about NIH grants is that there is an obligation to consider if US institutions could do the research. If they can, the foreign institution should NOT be funded. This is very clear. It’s entirely possible that fraudulent use of research funding is occurring in this case you mention.


      • I am trying to get the NIH to comment on the conduct of this research offshore without success as yet.

        The research award includes funding for equipment, materials, and personnel expenses in the US lab during the academic year. The travel extends for shortly after K-12 dismisses for the summer until shortly before it resumes.

        All that is expended for the international research is travel funding for airfare and per diems; the lodging is elsewhere and not charged to the award. There is an increase in the per diem when the traveler does not charge for lodging.

        The faculty member in question has questionable domestic travel claims as well.


  2. I have heard that publication in top-tier journal by a Chinese scholar can get a huge reward – $150,000 in US dollars. Wow. I’d be a millionaire, but not many times over, if we used that system.


  3. The American University System has produced remarkable results. The amount of well trained people along with innovation coming from them is amazing and have fueled many industries.

    The goal of these universities in my opinion is to develop young people with skills that will create great products and jobs along with doing a lot of research for companies and governments in the public domain.

    Companies when hiring should do a thorough interview to ensure the individual who is seeking employment have both the technical and interpersonal skills required to do the job, not some degree from a University…one of the best technical person I ever hired was from a California State University school, not one of the big tech powerhouse.

    If the Chinese want to build a solid industrial base, I hope they focus on these aforementioned goals, and not on the fleeting goals of getting to the top of some journalist list.

    Affirmative action is yet another subject. I for one, believe we should provide opportunities for all to rise to their level of potential. I believe aid and breaks should be given based on financial need of the individual not on some immutable characteristic.


  4. Many rankings take into account test scores. Ever notice that certain majors have their own test for admission to grad school? Below are some examples.

    Pharmacy has the PCAT (Pharmacy College Admission Test).
    Dental has the DAT (Dental Admission Test).
    Medical has the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test).
    Law has the LSAT (Law School Admission Test).

    The rest of us have to take the basic GRE with perhaps an additional subject test. Pharmacist, dentists, physicians, and lawyers are safe from comparison with the rest of us. If they had to take the basic GRE test then we might find that physics grad students score higher than medical students. This would be a big embarrassment to the medical profession. No wonder they have their own admissions test.


  5. Not sure I quite get the criticism here. So when China improves its research output, which feeds into rankings that take into account research output, this is considered “gaming the system”? So what would be not gaming the system?

    It seems to me that this improvement isn’t just quantity, but also quality. See for instance analysis by Simon Marginson. (He specifically points out that this improvement is disproportionately concentrated in quantitative fields, but hey we’ve all heard that uh stereotype about East Asians being good at math or something…)

    “Take chemistry: in the year 2000, China published 3.7 per cent of all papers in chemistry in the Thomson-Reuters Web of Science collection, based on all Thomson-accredited English-language journals. In 2012, that proportion had reached 16.9 per cent, and China’s total quantity of chemistry papers exceeded that of the US. More strikingly, in 2000 China authored just 0.6 per cent of chemistry papers ranked in the global top one per cent on citation rate in the Web of Science. Only 12 years later, in 2012, China published 16.3 per cent of the leading one per cent of papers, half as many as the US – an astonishing rate of improvement. There were similar patterns in engineering, physics and computing – where China publishes more top one per cent papers than the US – and mathematics (NSF, 2014).

    Click to access wp9.pdf

    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.!/page/0/length/25/sort_by/rank/sort_order/asc/cols/stats

    Times Higher Education publishes a “reputation” ranking that does precisely that. University of Tokyo comes in at 11, Tsinghua at 14 and Peking at 17.


    • I don’t know how to reply, other than repeating myself. China should focus on quality, not quantity, and to the extent that they are doing the latter, it is gaming the system, and it is my understanding that they are doing tons of that.

      To me personally, I am disappointed at the overriding emphasis on theory in Chinese research. Not only is it bad for the nation, but it typically does not even produce good theory.

      In terms of citations, this kind of ranking, though common, has been widely criticized as being quite distortionary. It too can be gamed (e.g. people citing each other), and as I said, this is common outside of China too.


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