Special Report – International rankings: a balancing act

UM and MUST are on a league of their own compared with other local universities when it comes to international rankings. The two institutions have climbed up the rankings thanks to a stronger focus on research output. But some question whether it comes at the expense of teaching.

MB March 2021 Special Report | 40 years of (modern) tertiary education

Macau universities were pretty much out of the radar of international rankings until half a dozen years ago.

Then in 2015, the University of Macau made an entry into the annual Times Higher Education World University Rankings, being among the world’s top 300 universities.

UM remained the sole local tertiary institution in the ranking until 2020 when Macau University of Science and Technology (MUST) made a debut in the ranking, joining the ranks among the top 251-300 universities, overtaking UM.

Another internationally renowned ranking, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Ranking) shows MUST ranked at 501-600 and UM at 601-700.

A university’s position in these rankings is an important component of their marketing and institutional communication strategy. For instance, MUST introduces itself as having been among the top 20 universities in the Greater china region n 2019, according to the Shanghai ranking.

Research output and the number of citations play a central role in ascending to the international rankings. Those who cast a sceptical eye on the rankings’ rationale point to the fact that they primarily focus on research productivity and reputation among peers, employers and students, while teaching quality risks being neglected.

That is the opinion of sociologist and former UM professor Hao Zhidong. For the major universities in the Greater China region, “improving one’s position in international rankings is an obsession”, he notes.

As “universities will emphasize research more than teaching”, he argues, “teaching is often relegated to a secondary position, and research neglects local issues”.

“To a great extent, university rankings have distorted the ecology of higher education development elsewhere, such as the unbalanced resource allocation between research and teaching” –  Teresa Vong Sou Kuan

Teresa Vong, a leading local education scholars, from UM’s Faculty of Education underlines that “in recent years, the ranking has gradually become an important focus for university development itself, especially for marketing purposes of each university,” but she warns that “to enhance their rankings, some universities have assigned a list of indicators to their staff members (including teaching staff), encouraging them to have achievements on SCI and ESI publications, which does not necessarily enhance the quality of teaching, and may result in more pressure on teachers.”

Professor Vong adds that “to a great extent, university rankings have distorted the ecology of higher education development elsewhere, such as the unbalanced resource allocation between research and teaching, the mere focus on output-oriented research, and the decline of research on certain areas such as the field of humanity science.”

“These rankings place strong emphasis on teachers’ publications, and rely heavily on experts/employers’ opinions, which might be fully comprised of commercial and subjective viewpoints,” sustains Professor Vong to Macau Business. “The mission of a university can be interpreted both locally and internationally, and most of these missions require time and patience to attain. In fact, even when a university lags slightly behind on international university rankings, it does not necessarily reflect its failure to serve the local needs,” creating what Hao Zhidong calls “star professors, enticed with big money since they have good publications records.”

Times Higher Education Ranking (2021) – scores

Rank 251-300 300-350
Overall 48.0-50.5 45.6-47.9
Teaching 29.7 30.0
Research 23.6 35.5
Citations 86.3 64.8
Industry income 40.3 40.9
International Outlook 100.0 99.3