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Taiwan, Japan, Germany, France, Working Together for a More Equitable System – NCCU President Kuo Convenes President’s Forum to Discuss Global University Rankings

Date : 2021-12-08 Department : Office of International Cooperation (OIC)
【Article by Office of International Cooperation】

Global university rankings have become a zero-sum game for tertiary education institutions the world over. Those are the words of NCCU President Ming-Cheng Kuo, who was both the organizer and opening speaker of the Presidents’ Forum “Rethinking World University Rankings”, held virtually on the 4 November. The Conference was the fifth installment of the lecture series titled “Global Alliance for the Cultivation of Global Citizens”.

The Forum brought together university Presidents and Vice Presidents from Japan, France, Germany, and Taiwan to discuss the shortcomings of the current university rankings system, and propose solutions to the challenges posed by its structure and methodological standards.

In addition to President Ming-Cheng Kuo of NCCU, the forum included President Nagata Kyosuke of the University of Tsukuba, Japan, President Kerstin Krieglstein of the University of Freiburg, Germany, and Vice President of International Relations Giovanna Chimini, of Aix-Marseille University, France.

All of the speakers President Kuo invited to participate in the forum shared one point in common: the current university ranking systems are not fit for purpose. The speakers all agreed that the current system produces results that bias English language institutions, prioritize quantity of research output over quality, and that the ability to adequately assess the quality of training and teaching output is lacking.

President Kuo opened the forum with a call for joint action amongst the participants to address the issues mentioned above. He first described how universities that prioritize “hard” sciences are also unfairly advantaged by the methodologies of some prominent ranking systems. President Kuo highlighted the metric that the Shanghai Rankings use to assess research output: the number of citations in subjects of Nature or Science, methodology that excludes social science departments completely. This practice disadvantages the humanities and social sciences as they are not publishing at the same rate as the science related disciplines. Further, these samples come from English speaking countries, disadvantaging research published in other languages.

The methodologies used to assess universities reputation lack transparency and meaningful ways to account for the varied history, social circumstances and output. He also noted that the mainstream ranking institutions are private, for-profit organizations, and that their fairness has always been in question. “Respondents [to reputation surveys] are often not selected in a reliable and transparent way. As a result, the so-called ‘global rankings’ turn out like a popularity rating, which distorts the core value of an educational institution,” President Kuo said. “If a university contributes to cultivating talents who benefit the wellbeing of its local community and society, it should be regarded as a great university and be given full credit.”

Nagata Kyosuke, President of the University of Tsukuba, Japan, reflected many of President Kuo’s points, and took the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings as an example. President Nagata said that relying on a single ranking mechanism such as THE made universities’ perceived status highly vulnerable if the rankers decide to adjust the indicators, and that Japanese universities have suffered from this. He further said that rankings have a specific set of indicators, and simply using a single ranking mechanism cannot objectively reflect the true educational value of universities.

President Nagata also cited data to display how the number of citations of papers and the scores of research indicators are not necessarily related; for newly established universities, rankings can be improved by producing many paper citations, even if the ranking score of the research is sub-par. For President Nagata, this fact only serves to highlight the fallibility of such a ranking mechanism. He finished by encouraging those using rankings as a means for assessing universities quality to not use them to make quick judgements, and to understand the way the rankings are created when interpreting them.

Professor Kerstin Krieglstein, Rector of the University of Freiburg, provided a comprehensive assessment of the current situation from a German perspective. For Rector Krieglstein, the hallmark of the German university system is maintaining the balance between excellence and diversity. “We strive to balance the academic and competitive agenda with the academic and social agenda” she said. She noted how the Germany university system conflicts with the global rankings systems, as in Germany, the student-teacher ratio is determined by the central government. Also, the German academic system is clearly divided into universities with parallel teaching and research, and specialized academic research institutions. The current ranking mechanism only focuses on the research performance of universities, and it cannot comprehensively or effectively reflect the outstanding academic achievements of Germany’s research institutions.

Despite this, Krieglstein says that German universities have a conflicting relationship with the rankings system. “Due to international competition, we still feel the need to participate in these rankings”, she said. “However, despite their influence, [the rankings] are neither considered a relevant database, nor are they used as KPIs by universities or policy makers.” She recommended to the speakers two world university rankings with more diversified indicators that are led by non-profit organizations: CHE and U-Multirank university rankings.

Giovanna Chimini, Vice President for International Relations at Aix-Marseille University provided the forum with a French perspective echoing the other speakers and including some of her personal views and suggestions for ways to improve the system. “It’s too simplistic to use the number of publications as an indicator for quality” she said, and went on to say that rankings should incorporate multiple indicators where possible, including the opinions of teachers, students, and even the public, to avoid bias.

Professor Chimini advocated for a system that measures quality in diversity, and allows universities to state their own goals as an institution, and measure success against them. She reflected President Kuo and Nagata’s own remarks when she described the need for assessing universities against their own place in society, as a worldwide standard does not provide for useful comparisons. 

In the Q&A session before the closing of the conference, President Kuo said that the current mainstream ranking systems are analogous to a system that ranked a company on its tools and capital but did not consider what that company produced. The current system compares the resources and conditions that universities can provide, rather than looking at the results of talent cultivation. He reiterated that a universities contribution to society should be included in rankings, and again described the privileged position the English language has in academia, while the humanities and social sciences mostly use local languages to discuss local issues, issues are some of the most pressing for society at large.

President Nagata emphasized that considering the differences between countries, cross-country comparisons will likely produce skewed results, and that only when universities in the same country are compared with each will rankings be a more useful way to assess institutions.

President Krieglstein and Vice President Chimini both emphasized the same sentiment: quantity is not equal to quality when it comes to research, and thus the current ranking system is highly limited. The ranking results should be treated with caution and more comprehensive ranking indicators should be considered to allow for real improvements in universities world over.

President Kuo closed the discussion with a call to action: “I would like to encourage participants to join together, and work hand in hand to achieve a different track and a better outcome for global university rankings, let’s do it together.” The speakers agreed that there was great potential for future cooperation on this issue, and that in working together, the institutions who are disadvantaged by the current system will be able to implement changes that benefit all.
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