Cash for ranking scandal erupts
Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China
As a high school student in Inner Mongolia, He Yinghan was deeply puzzled by the way that a university’s ranking could vary tremendously depending on which league table he looked at. ’The top 10 universities had similar rankings, but the rankings of the rest didn’t match up, making it very hard to make a decision,’ recalls He, now a college student in Sichuan Province.
The university rankings that had perplexed He and other Chinese students are now at the centre of a ranking scandal. In late December 2008, Shanghai-based newspaper Wenhui Bao reported that a Shanghai university’s ranking fell by two grades after it turned down a ranking organisation’s offer of consultancy services. An unnamed source quoted in the story complained that he had been warned off openly criticising the ranking by the university president who worried that the criticism might damage the university’s standing.
The Wenhui Bao news has ignited a round of heated debates. Many people are critical of the way that university ranking is profit-driven, claiming that it misleads students.
But Shen Yong, a researcher at Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management, says that university rankings primarily result from strong social demands. Since ranking began in the mid 1990s, almost a dozen university ranking systems have been set up. Recent league tables have even ranked universities according to how many billionaires they produce.
’Parents always want their children to have a better university, especially since the fast expansion of China’s higher education,’ Shen told Chemistry World. China’s college student numbers increased from under 4 million in 1998 to nearly 18.9 million in 2007 and many universities have merged.
Gu Haibing, a professor of public policy at Beijing-based Renmin University of China, says that although the media reporting of the scandals cannot be confirmed, it is true that university ranking can be made highly profitable by selling college entry reference books or by providing consulting services to universities.
’Unlike the hard figures such as SCI (science citation index) papers, many indices for the university ranking can be flexible, such as the so-called "average faculty creativity" coined by one ranking,’ Gu told Chemistry World . ’With the paid consulting services, it is possible that the client university can raise its ranking by focusing on improving certain indicators.’
Official information on universities is lacking. The Ministry of Education does evaluate undergraduate education and graduate schools, but the information is either unpublished or too complicated for the general public to understand. Ministry of Education officials have repeatedly stressed opposition to university rankings, yet this has not curbed ranking activity.
Shen believes that, in the long term, the non-official rankings could influence education authorities to give more funding to higher-ranked universities. ’When the ranking is very different to the evaluation results of the education ministry, the ministry could come under pressure from the public too, because government funding is based on the evaluation,’ says Shen.
Wu Shulian of the Chinese Academy of Management Sciences, who was involved in the first round of university ranking in China, thinks that ranking is not as disordered as the media make out.
In order to make ranking more neutral and authoritative, Wu’s ranking team has adopted three ’no policies’ - it does not work for any university, does not provide a service to any university, and does not employ any university staff.
’We cannot make other ranking organisations have the same policies, but we strongly recommend that they do,’ says Wu.
Meanwhile, Shen is calling for the results of the education ministry’s evaluation to be published in detail. Gu thinks that all university ranking should be non-profit and sponsored by leading civil society organisations. ’But our civil society is not strong enough, so the growth in the number of ranking systems will remain until the public eventually accepts the more authoritative and neutral ones,’ he says.