Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The University of Tokyo did not fall in the rankings. It was pushed.

Times Higher Education (THE) has published an article by Devin Stewart that refers to a crisis of Japanese universities. He says:

"After Japan’s prestigious University of Tokyo fell from its number one spot to number seven in Times Higher Education’s Asia University Rankings earlier this year, I had a chance to travel to Tokyo to interview more than 40 people involved with various parts of the country’s education system.
Students, academics and professionals told me they felt a blow to their national pride from the news of the rankings drop. I found that the THE rankings result underscored the complex problems plaguing the country’s institutions of higher learning. "
If Japanese academics and university administrators do actually believe that the fall of the University of Tokyo (aka Todai) in the THE Asian rankings is an indicator of complex problems and if they do feel that it is a blow to their national pride then there is indeed a crisis in Japanese higher education and that is one of a failure of critical thinking and a naive trust in unstable, opaque and methodologically dubious international rankings.

The fall of Todai in the THE Asian rankings was preceded by a fall in the World University Rankings (WUR) from 23rd place in the 2014 rankings (2014-2015) to 43rd in 2015 (2015-2016). Among Asian universities in the WUR it fell from first place to third.

This was not the result of anything that happened to Todai over the course of a year.  There was no exodus of international students, no collapse of research output, no mass suicide of faculty, no sudden and miraculous disappearance of citations. It was the result of a changing methodology including the exclusion from citation counts of mega-papers, mainly in particle physics, with more than a thousand authors. This had a disproportionate impact on the University of Tokyo, whose citation score fell from 74.7 to 60.9, and some other Japanese universities.

The university made a bit of a comeback in the world rankings this year, rising to 39th (with a slightly improved citations score of 62.4) after THE did some more tweaking and gave limited credit for citations of the mega-papers.

Todai did even worse in the 2016 Asian rankings, derived from the world rankings, falling to an embarrassing seventh place behind two Singaporean, two Chinese and two Hong Kong universities. How did that happen?  There was nothing like this in other rankings. Todai's position in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) actually improved between 2015 and 2016, from 21st to 20th, and in the Round University Rankings from 47th to 37th, and it remained the top Asian university in the CWUR, URAP and National Taiwan University rankings.

Evidently THE saw things that others did not. They decided that Hong Kong and Mainland China were separately entities for ranking purposes and that Mainland students, faculty and collaborators in Hong Kong universities would be counted as international. The international orientation score of the University of Hong Kong (UHK) in the Asian rankings accordingly went up from 81.9 to 99.5 between 2015 and 2016. Peter Mathieson of the University of Hong Kong was aware of this and warned everyone not to get too excited. Meanwhile universities such as Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Singapore were getting higher scores for citations, almost certainly as a result of the methodological changes.

In addition, as noted in earlier posts, THE recalibrated the weighting assigned to its indicators, reducing that given to the research and teaching reputation surveys, where Todai is a high flier, and increasing that for income from industry where Peking and Tsinghua universities have perfect scores and NTU, HKUST and UHK do better than Tokyo.

In 2015 THE issued a health warning:

"Because of changes in the underlying data, we strongly advise against direct comparisons with previous years’ World University Rankings."

They should have done that for the 2016 Asian rankings which added further changes. It is regrettable that THE has published an article which refers to a fall in the rankings. There has been no fall in any real sense. There has only been a lot of recalibration and changes in the way data is processed.

Japanese higher education should not be ashamed of any decline in quality. If there had been any, especially in research, it would have have shown up in other more stable and less opaque rankings. They should, however, be embarrassed if they allow national and university policies to be driven by methodological tweaking.

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