Most Hong Kong universities rise in QS global rankings despite disruptions from months of anti-government protests in city

Chan Ho-him

Most of Hong Kong’s universities scored better marks in the latest global rankings, with two achieving a record best despite the months-long anti-government protests last year that turned several campuses into battlegrounds.

Six of the seven local institutions listed in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings 2021 saw an improvement, with the best-ranked University of Hong Kong moving up three places to 22nd among 1,000 of its global peers, and the University of Science and Technology rising five spots to 27th, its best placing.

Polytechnic University – scene of some of the most violent clashes between radical protesters and police and a subsequent lockdown at its Hung Hom campus last November – had the biggest jump in rankings among the local institutions, rising from 91st to 75th globally.

Researchers said the higher rankings were mainly because the score for citations per faculty had risen year on year for all the universities, while HKU’s record-breaking performance was primarily due to improvements in its academic standing and research impact.

Six indicators were used in compiling the annual rankings, including academic and employer reputation, citations per faculty, student to faculty ratio, as well as international student and faculty ratios.

Chinese University rose three places to 43rd while City University went from 52nd to 48th. Lingnan University, which was ranked at 591-600 in 2020, improved to 571-580.

Baptist University, the only local institution to fall in the rankings, slipped three places from last year to No 264, which QS said “was not a dramatic change in performance”.

The top three universities were all in the United States and kept the same ranking as last year, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as No 1, followed by Stanford and Harvard. The best university in Asia was the National University of Singapore, ranked 11th globally. China’s top-ranking Tsinghua University improved one place to 15th.

QS research director Ben Sowter said the performance of Hong Kong universities could be “surprising” for some people, given the protests which first erupted last June and lasted for months.

Protesters occupied several campuses last November, resulting in severe damage to facilities, items stolen from laboratories, widespread suspension of classes, as well as an exodus of students from mainland China and overseas.

“There have been some expectations that recent events are going to begin to have a suppressive effect on the performance of Hong Kong universities, but we are not seeing that yet,” Sowter said.

The survey collection period for the academic and employer reputation indicators was carried out between January and March this year, while the citations period lasted to the end of 2018, according to the Britain-based company.

Sowter said most of Hong Kong’s universities had seen a decline in performance in regard to employer reputation and international faculty ratio.

“[For] international faculty, this may or may not be related to a combination of factors relating to a sense of personal safety in Hong Kong, which might deter international faculty following recent events, or might encourage international faculty to consider moving elsewhere,” he said.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in months of class suspensions, was also not yet reflected in the latest rankings, Sowter said.

Asked whether a continuation in protests could lead to a drop in future rankings, he added: “As time goes on … any damage to the ability to attract international faculty may also diminish the ability of universities to attract researchers.”

HKU’s rise in the rankings was mainly attributed to improvements in its academic standing and impact on research. Photo: Nora Tam

HKU and Chinese University said they would continue to strive for excellence in teaching and research, while University of Science and Technology, PolyU and Baptist University all said they would take the ranking results as a reference for ongoing improvements.

CityU said it “valued our academic expertise”, while Lingnan University said it would further develop research and academic collaborations with leading institutions in the region and overseas to enhance student learning and research.

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