Hong Kong universities fall in rankings across multiple subjects in new list from Britain-based publication

Chan Ho-him
·4 min read

Four Hong Kong universities have slipped in a global ranking of their programmes in various subjects formulated by a Britain-based publication, with some of the biggest drops seen in the arts and humanities, as well as the sciences.

The University of Hong Kong, Chinese University, the University of Science and Technology and City University all saw a year-on-year decline in more than half of the subjects being tracked in the Times Higher Education’s rankings for 2021, which were released on Wednesday.

Researchers said the main reason for the drop in the latest rankings was a decline in teaching and research reputation, noting that the data collection process largely did not cover the period after the city’s anti-government protests erupted in June last year.

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More than 1,500 universities from around the world were ranked in the latest league table, which looked at 11 subjects, including business and economics, health, computer science, education, engineering and law.

Students walk on the campus of Chinese University, which dropped in the rankings of seven out of 11 subjects. Photo: Winson Wong
Students walk on the campus of Chinese University, which dropped in the rankings of seven out of 11 subjects. Photo: Winson Wong

Universities were ranked according to five indicators: teaching and learning environment, research volume and reputation, citations, international outlook and the amount the institutions earned from selling the fruits of their research to the commercial sector.

Six of the city’s eight publicly-funded universities took part in the 2021 rankings.

At the University of Hong Kong, seven of its 11 subjects being ranked saw declines, with the biggest drop coming in the field of arts and humanities, which slipped 11 places from 31st to 42nd. HKU’s highest-ranked subject, education, also dropped slightly from third in the world to fifth.

Only two subjects, psychology and physical sciences – which comprises chemistry, physics, maths and geology – saw slight rises to 56th place and 54th place, respectively.

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Chinese University also saw seven of its 11 ranked subjects suffer drops in rankings, with only three subjects enjoying a rise. One of its biggest drops was also in arts and humanities, which fell by 34 places, from 64th to 98th in the world.

Its law subject, however, had a significant boost in the global rankings, rising from 91st to 79th.

Five out of the six ranked subjects at the University of Science and Technology saw drops in the rankings, including its social sciences programmes, which slipped 21 places to 74th. City University saw five of its seven subjects suffer a decline.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in Clear Water Bay saw drops in five of its six ranked subjects. 08 MAY 2007
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in Clear Water Bay saw drops in five of its six ranked subjects. 08 MAY 2007

Bucking the trend, however, Polytechnic and Baptist universities maintained their positions or performed better in more than half of their ranked subjects. Six out of the seven subjects ranked at PolyU saw a rise, including engineering, which rose by 21 places to 75th globally.

Several Hong Kong universities, particularly PolyU, became battlegrounds last year as anti-government protesters occupied campuses and engaged in fierce clashes with police during last year’s social unrest. The protests were first sparked by widespread opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill, but soon morphed into a movement seeking greater democracy, among other demands.

But a Times Higher Education spokesman said any impacts from last year‘s protests on local universities’ research output or reputation would “take quite a few more years to become apparent”.

PolyU shoots up in Britain-based higher education rankings

Critics have also raised concerns that the city’s sweeping national security law – drafted by Beijing and imposed on the city in June to target, in broad terms, any acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces – could bring additional restrictions on academic freedom and hinder international cooperation.

Asked about the potential impacts of the national security legislation on local universities’ rankings, the spokesman said: “While protests and political activities are common in many countries in the world, any response that reduces attractiveness as an international hub may have a negative impact on a country or region’s ability to attract and collaborate with the best talents from around the world.”

Asked to comment on the rankings, HKU and CityU only said they would continue to provide quality education to students, while Chinese University said various league tables used different evaluation criteria, and as a result produced different rankings.

HKUST and Baptist University, meanwhile, said they would use the new rankings to identify areas for improvement, while PolyU said it was encouraging to see its positions improve.

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