Hong Kong tops THE ‘most international universities’ list again

Times Higher Education (THE) has again drawn on existing data from its rankings to produce another one, ‘Most International Universities in the World 2023’, directed mostly at students. It appears that size, language, history and geography combine to make universities in some countries highly international, especially Hong Kong.

While universities in Hong Kong, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Singapore fill the top 10 places in the 2023 ranking, English language countries – or those with universities that teach in English – dominate across the 200 universities in the 2023 edition of the ranking, published on Wednesday 25 January.

Hans de Wit, distinguished fellow and professor emeritus at Boston College Center for International Higher Education in the United States, said it is not surprising that institutions in smaller countries perform better in the ‘most international universities’ ranking than they do in the overall THE World University Rankings 2023.

“The reason is that these universities in smaller countries have several borders and attract students and staff from across these borders – Hong Kong from mainland China; Switzerland from Germany, France and Italy; the Netherlands from Germany; Singapore from Malaysia and the region.

“That gives them an extra advantage above their international reputation, co-authorship and overall international recruitment of students and staff,” he told University World News.

Some 32 countries feature in the ranking. There are 15 UK universities, all in the top 50 of the list, joined by many institutions from the Netherlands (seven), Australia (seven) and Canada (three) – a reflection perhaps of the draw of English language courses.

There are 60 United States universities, but with quite low proportions of international students, staff and publications; most fall between 50 and 150. The first of China’s 18 universities comes in at 128. Other countries with fair numbers of universities listed are Germany (12), Japan (11), the Russian Federation (8), France (7) and South Korea (six).

The top 10

For the third year in a row the University of Hong Kong took the top spot in the THE Most International Universities ranking. Swiss universities École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and ETH Zurich held onto the second and third slots, though in different order to last year.

City University of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Hong Kong Polytechnic University are in fourth, fifth and sixth positions respectively.

The UK’s Imperial College London, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, come next, and taking the number 10 slot is the National University of Singapore.

The British and to a lesser degree Singapore institutions are ranked not far from their positions in THE’s World University Rankings 2023, but – as Hans de Wit remarked – the Hong Kong and Swiss institutions score a lot higher on international than on overall THE ranking measures.

For instance, City University of Hong Kong was placed joint 99th in the 2023 THE world ranking, and Hong Kong Polytechnic University was at position 79.

In the case of Hong Kong, use of English, history as a highly internationalised former colony and geographical and historical connections to China have combined to create universities that are highly international by student, staff and publication measures. These factors may be enhanced by high levels of multiple university affiliations among academic staff.

The China connection is more recent. University Grants Committee (UGC) figures show 86,000 students on full-time government-funded courses in Hong Kong in the 2021-22 academic year, the South China Morning Post reported this month.

In another article last October, also citing UGC figures, South China Morning Post reported 8,622 mainland Chinese students at Hong Kong’s public universities – 10% of the student population. Mainland student numbers have been rising sharply.

Seeta Bhardwa, editor of THE Student, said in a press release that 43% of the University of Hong Kong’s more than 18,000 students are international, teaching is in English and has an international focus, aiming to prepare global citizens who can succeed anywhere.

“The university plans to expand its international outreach and recruit more staff and students from overseas, aiming to become ‘Asia’s global university’,” she added.

EPFL in Switzerland has an even higher proportion of international students – 62% of 11,000. ETH Zurich has some 22,000 students from more than 120 countries.

The survey

The data for the international universities ranking is drawn mostly from the ‘international outlook’ pillar of the THE World University Rankings 2023: institutions’ proportions of international students (25%) and staff (25%), and journal publications with at least one international co-author (25%).

A further 25% of the ranking score is a university’s international reputation, based on the proportion of votes from outside the home country achieved in THE’s annual Academic Reputation Survey, in which 30,000 scholars name the world’s best universities in their field.

“Only institutions that received at least 300 votes in the survey were eligible for inclusion,” said THE in the press release. Universities must also receive at least 150 or 10% of the available domestic votes to be ranked.

Hans de Wit said the main methodology change in the ‘most international universities’ ranking has been the inclusion of the 25% for international reputation, and that has impacted considerably on universities.

That is why universities in the UK have gone up in the ranking. “But also some universities have gone down or even out, for instance Maastricht University in the Netherlands, which was higher in the earlier rankings but now is no longer there, while other Dutch universities which have more of a reputation have gone up.”

THE should make it more clear that as a result they compare apples and pears in this ranking,” De Wit told University World News.

“What is even more important, is that the claim of being ‘most international’ on the basis of the four THE indicators does not say anything about the quality of universities’ internationalisation, in particular not in their international teaching and learning, and also not in their international social responsibility.”