Tzu Chi University has performed a miracle in the University Impact Rankings, destroying the illusion that greater resources bring a higher score. In the list released by the Times Higher Education on April 3, the university ranked 67th, top among 12 Taiwanese institutes on the list, including National Taiwan University (NTU), which was 70th.
I have always questioned global rankings of this sort, as well as the obsession with quantitative criteria.
However, I am curious about the criteria for this list, which ranked a small university ahead of a big one.
Surprisingly, the rankings were based on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The organizer of the list used 11 of the goals suitable for university development, including good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, climate action, and sustainable cities and communities, a different methodology from other evaluations.
To gain higher rankings, the government has put a lot of resources into a few top universities and few resources into universities with teaching excellence. In return, the top universities merely move up and down the rankings from year to year, gradually attracting researchers cultivated by other institutes.
The results of investing resources to gain higher global rankings and whether the top universities are using their resources appropriately have long been targets of criticism.
Universities that are not ranked highly have fewer resources and suffer from an outflow of talent. In addition, research often caters to Western needs, while overlooking local needs because of the indexation of journals promoted by businesspeople in the West. For these reasons, I never take the rankings seriously.
This problem is a result of uneven resource distribution — the strong become stronger and the big become bigger. While top universities are becoming bloated, those that lag behind are almost starving to death.
Fortunately, after President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration took office, the government made a U-turn regarding resource distribution by sharply cutting funds for top universities and encouraging all institutes to cultivate local talent to obtain and use resources effectively. This is a helpful paradigm shift.
Today, Tzu Chi University’s educational characteristics outshine NTU in alternative rankings. This in itself is praiseworthy, because the news is surprising everyone.
My first thought on reading the news was that the criteria for the rankings would have a crucial effect.
This is also inspiring for higher education in Taiwan. A mouse defeating an elephant is no longer a fairy tale.
All those professors at top universities who complain that their rankings drop due to insufficient government funding should consider the following three questions:
As the public resources that Tzu Chi University receives are insignificant compared with what top universities receive, why did it stand out in the rankings?
The institutes in global rankings need a lot of resources to direct toward maximization of data to meet rankings’ criteria, but is it really worth it for a relatively small nation to join this game?
Does the giant gap in the distribution of limited resources not cause a flight of talent from regular universities?
Is the predatory approach of spending too much on the top universities and not enough on smaller ones to achieve higher rankings in line with social values such as fairness and justice?
Shih Chao-hwei is a professor in Hsuan Chuang University’s department of religion and culture.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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