Are Hong Kong universities really losing ground to China?

In their recent article for University World News, Gerard Postiglione and Philip G Altbach wrote that “Hong Kong higher education reaches an inflection point”. Their thorough analysis listed a number of policy factors that are indeed threatening the position and attractiveness of Hong Kong higher education, including lower investments.

At the same time the authors claim that “Hong Kong’s universities have by no means substantively declined – but they no longer outpace their counterparts in China. Clearly, the Chinese mainland institutions have caught up.” To provide evidence, Postiglione and Altbach refer to the results of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

But comprehensive data from U-Multirank, looking at the period 2014 to 2021, give a more differentiated picture. The total sample of U-Multirank’s 2021 edition includes five universities from Hong Kong and 125 from mainland China.

The authors’ conclusion is perfectly confirmed if we analyse the development of the number of academic publications as an indicator of scientific output. With regard to the quantity of scientific output, mainland universities indeed caught up with their counterparts in Hong Kong, or if we look only at those with the largest output, started to outperform them in 2016.

Quality over quantity

The picture is more differentiated if we analyse other research performance criteria, which include more qualitative aspects, such as the percentage of joint international publications, as an indicator of embeddedness in the global higher education system, and the percentage of top-cited publications, as an indicator of research impact.

Looking at international cooperation and research impact, Hong Kong universities are still ahead of Chinese mainland institutions – both with regard to the full sample and to those with the highest output – despite international cooperation and research impact increasing for both.

With regard to the percentage of international co-publications, mainland institutions fell even further behind Hong Kong universities. This may already reflect Chinese policy to focus more on the domestic orientation of their universities and to reduce foreign links.

The difference between the conclusions from the U-Multirank data and the findings of Postiglione and Altbach is related to the fact that ranking positions are not only determined by actual performance, but also by perceived reputation. A reference to rankings that to a large degree reflect the reputation of institutions rather than their real performance may be misleading for analysing and comparing performance over time.

The long-term implications of the new changes described by Postiglione and Altbach are indeed still unclear.

At the same time, China’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Science and Technology jointly released a document aimed at reducing “excessive reliance” on Science Citation Index (SCI) papers for academic promotion, job offers and allocation of research funding (as Yojana Sharma described in University World News), suggesting further possible changes in the future contribution of Chinese universities to global publication output and impact.

Gero Federkeil is head of international ranking at CHE Centre for Higher Education, Germany, and managing director of U-Multirank.