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LIU YAO: In pursuit of rank, universities shouldn’t neglect core mission

| 2018-07-19
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Public opinion is divided about the university rankings published by various domestic and foreign institutions. Because university rankings are a crucial means by which people evaluate universities, it is important to conduct an objective assessment and use the rankings rationally.

In recent years, a number of Chinese universities have moved up in the rankings. According to the analysis conducted by Chinese media on the data released by the the four major leading providers of world university rankings—Quacquarelli Symonds, Times Higher Education, US News & World Report and Shanghai Ranking Consultancy—12 Chinese universities have been listed among the top 500 globally. This is an unmistakable sign of the steady progress China’s higher education has made in recent years.

Internationally, the world’s top universities are widely recognized for their high educational level, status and academic achievement. Some universities attempt to conform to the criteria of the most well-known world university rankings, which tend to emphasize research over instruction. In pursuit of better rankings, universities could lose sight of their core mission to educate.

Former Vice Chancellor of University of Cambridge Alison Richard once said that no great university in the world can be ranked, and universities cannot be compared to one another due to the big differences between them.

Richard also said that there is no perfect system for ranking universities because each has its own methodology, and the different indices place varying weight on such factors as research award, peer review or paper publication. That is to say, despite the public credibility of the university rankings, no list will ever truly be the ultimate authority.

But it is indeed a fact that university rankings have become one of the important tools for people to learn about a university. Providing a window through which all sectors of society observe universities, the rankings also drive universities to constantly improve their educational performance. In this way, university rankings are indispensable tools for external monitoring  of the education quality.

Also because of this, some universities have devoted more resources to disciplines and research areas that are conducive to moving up the ranks. Given a strong need to improve their rankings, the institutions that provide ranking lists will possibly reap unfair gains. If the behaviors of the two parties are not regulated, there may be lack of standardization in the rankings.

According to some research, improving rankings has become a goal pursued by some universities’ leadership, and some universities even have set up special institutions to track and conduct follow-up study of the changes in their universities’ rankings. According to the 2013 US News & World Report rankings, five American universities were warned or expelled for falsifying data.

Many scholars believe that the rankings cannot be entirely trusted. If they are overemphasized and even used as the “baton for the orchestra,” it will lead to the utilitarianism and homogeneity of university education.

University rankings should be given enough tolerance. The goal is to foster the rational use of the ranking list and its credibility, as well as the wholesome competition between universities.


Liu Yao is the director of Education Review Institute at Zhejiang Normal University.

(edited by BAI LE)