The influence of league tables: The Case of Hong Kong U

The University of Hong Kong’s President and Vice-Chancellor Professor, Peter Mathieson, recently spoke to the Court about the University’s future. Among addressing the various controversy of last year —such as the call to create “international” experiences in Mainland China for all undergraduate students by 2019 and selection of new pro-vice-chancellors— he also had an interesting take on the role of league tables in the university’s future directions. On the one hand, he pointed out the weaknesses of league tables, but on the other clearly situated HKU among its Western counterparts, such as Stanford and Yale. He dislikes rankings, but nevertheless will use them to guide future directions because they are “here to stay.” The below quote is an interesting insight into the power of league tables within university decision making:

So how are we doing? I recently presented to the Senior Management Team and subsequently to Council some analysis of the major international league tables over the last 11 years. I won’t reiterate now my views on rankings, which are well-known and on the public record, except to say that I stand by my assertion that we will never set institutional strategy to meet the criteria of any particular league table. However, rankings are here to stay and we all know that they are widely used as a short cut: by prospective students, parents, governments and media. They are a surrogate for a university’s international reputation.

The first point to make is that Hong Kong U’s position now is quite similar to its position in the first rankings which were published 11 years ago jointly by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THE) and the Quacquerelli-Symonds (QS). We were ranked number 39 in 2004, compared to 30 and 44 in the most recent 2015 rankings from the QS and THE respectively. In the 11 intervening years, there has been quite a lot of fluctuation, some of it undoubtedly explained by the frequent methodological changes which provide one reason why rankings are so controversial and open to various interpretations. Hong Kong U’s peak position was eight years ago in 2007 when HKU was ranked number 18 in the world. Stanford that year was number 19, so you can make up your own mind about whether that high point flattered HKU or not. The very next year, 2008, HKU dropped 8 places to number 26 (Stanford rose slightly to 17). In 2010, the two rankings agencies split and used slightly different methodologies but since then both of them show a definite slow downward trend for HKU, starting in 2011 in the QS and in 2010 in the Times Higher. There are various possible contributors to this: student-staff ratios influence the rankings and the 334 transition adversely affected these because the increased number of students was not accompanied by a commensurate increase in staffing. The fact that Chinese U and Hong Kong UST showed similar trends in this time period supports this as a contributor. Hong Kong U also had the possible impact on its reputation of the 818 incident in 2011. The fact that HKUST jumped above HKU in one of the rankings this year (the QS) has caused a lot of comment: in fact QS themselves said that this was largely explicable by a change in methodology, where an adjustment was made for the presence or absence of a medical school because having a medical school was deemed to give an unfair advantage via an effect on citations and other prestige indicators. Accordingly, HKU dropped by 2 places and CUHK by 5 places (it is noteworthy that Yale also dropped by 5 places), with HKUST rising by 12 places: sudden changes like this in rankings usually reflect methodological changes because reputations don’t usually change overnight. It is worth noting that in the other major league table, the Times Higher, between 2014 and 2015, HKU actually did the best of the three local universities, dropping by 1 place compared to a drop of 8 places for HKUST and 9 places for CUHK.

China’s investments worldwide

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 7.37.05 am The New York Times has published an interesting set of graphics depicting China’s foreign investment worldwide. With the massive investments, China is remaking the rule-based world order that the US is most interested in protecting. The accompanying article by the Times is worth a read to see first hand what Chinese investment means for various countries. What is missing in the article is any mention of China’s influence on education in these various countries.

Wages stagnate for Lao civil servants

Radio Free Asia reports the salaries for Lao’s 150,000 civil servants will remain unchanged for next year. With the rising cost of living, stagnate wages cannot provide the same quality of life year after year.

“Three meals per day cost 50,000 kip (U.S. $6.14) each, so in total they cost 1.5 million kip (U.S. $184) per month, not including other expenses, while my salary is only 1.2 million kip (U.S. $147),” he said.

As an example of the rising cost of living, he said a bowl of noodle soup now costs 25,000 kip (U.S. $3) compared to 20,000 kip (U.S. $2.45) last year.

This makes civil servants’ lives more difficult because their current salaries are not enough to meet their daily expenses, he said.

“To resolve the money problems, I need to earn additional income by raising ducks and chickens in the house and growing vegetables for family consumption,” the government worker said.

Some civil servants must borrow money from individuals and pay 10-percent interest to make ends meet, he said.

Private tutoring not given as a reason for missing school hours in Cambodia

A new report on teaching hours in primary school has identified three main “causes” (i.e., “factors”) of lost time in mainstream school. The first is too many school holidays (or students/teachers taking additional days off during holidays), teacher absences from mainstream schooling, and shortening of lessons by teachers. Note first how blame is placed on teachers. Note second how the common practice of private tutoring is not identified as a factor. I’m keen to see the research report’s methods — particularly how questions were asked. This will help understand how these “factors” were identified, which ones were included, excluded, and why.

At the launch event, Education Minister Dr. Hang Chuon Naron, ensured the ministry of education, youth, and sport will address the issue of teaching hours by strengthening regulations:

We will form a working group to intervene in this case in order to strengthen teacher hours and the school regulations.

I’ll review the report’s methods once I get my hands on the actual report.

Cambodia strengthens its ties with China

From Voice of America:

Analysts say Phnom Penh is likely to look more and more to Beijing for support because of growing tensions with its old patron, Vietnam, over border issues.

Cambodia and China have traditionally enjoyed close relations, and they became noticeably closer after 2012 when Cambodia, as host of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, sided with China over the contentious South China Sea issue.

The following year, Beijing provided Phnom Penh with a $195 million loan, which bought 12 Chinese Z-9 military helicopters. In May of this year, China pledged military trucks, spare parts, equipment and unspecified chemicals.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has often touted the relationship. During the inauguration of a Chinese-funded road in Kampong Som province last month, he told a group of farmers that Cambodian-Chinese relations were at an all-time high, and that the two were moving toward a “comprehensive” partnership. China’s development fund for Cambodia for 2015 amounted to $140 million, up from $100 million the year before, he said.

Tea Banh defended the bilateral relationship, saying Chinese aid came with no strings attached and that China had never interfered in Cambodian affairs. He declined to disclose how much aid Cambodia would receive from his latest trip.

A surge in tutoring in Cambodia?

The national high school exit examination is a month away. Last year’s crackdown on cheating has forced the 88,000 students expected to sit the examination this year to prepare extra hard. Attendance at study clubs, self-revisions, private tutoring with public school teachers, and  private tutoring at local private businesses appear to be surging. One newspaper article quoted one student as saying,

I stay at school until 7:30 p.m. because I need to study part-time in the afternoon,” he said. “I have a club to study with my friends in which we teach and explain to each other any subjects or lessons that we do not understand.

The New Silk Road runs through Cambodian schools

Cambodian Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron (C) cuts the ribbon to inaugurate a China-funded school building in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 16, 2015. Cambodia inaugurated a three-storey school building at the Indradevi High School in Phnom Penh on July 16, which was donated by China Foundation for Peace and Development.[Photo/Xinhua]

The new silk road, China’s attempt to “resurrect the ancient Silk Road as a modern transit, trade, and economic corridor that runs from Shanghai to Berlin,” is coming to Cambodian schools. Through grants from the China Foundation for Peace and Development, a soft-power arm of the Chinese government, new school buildings are being constructed. The first building was inaugurated yesterday and 10 more are scheduled to be constructed. Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron stated at the ceremony:

This building is a new testament to the excellent relations between Cambodia and China…It will contribute to developing education sector in Cambodia.

Wages rise, profits rise in Cambodia’s garment industry

Cambodia’s garment and footwear exports, 1995-2015 (US$ million). Graphic: Ministry of Commerce

It’s not conventional wisdom to think when wages for employees increase so do profits for businesses. Paul Krugman made a similar argument in his latest New York Times Op-Ed. In it, Kurgman summarizes an argument made in a research study in the USA that found a startling (to many economists) relationship, or lack there of: “There’s just no evidence that raising the minimum wage costs jobs, at least when the starting point is as low as it is in modern America.” So too is the starting point so low in Cambodia that when the government finally allowed last January a rise in the minimum wage for garment industry workers, business did not slow. In fact, business has improved, more jobs have been created, and the overall export of garments made in Cambodia have increased:

Last year, the garment and footwear industry grew by 9.3 percent to $5.8 billion, up from $5.3 billion in 2013. Footwear exports grew even faster, increasing by 23.9 percent to $438 million in 2014 over the previous year.
According to the Cambodian Investment Board, 78 new garment and footwear factories were approved in 2014, with a total value of $452 million of fixed assets. In the first quarter of 2015, 19 more factories, worth a total of $72 million gained approval.
With new factory openings, employment is rising. According to official figures, the total garment worker population increased from 497,200 in 2013 to 580,900 in 2014. During the first quarter, that number hit 605,100.

Education and the New Tokyo Strategy: A look at Kitakyushu City

The New Tokyo Strategy aims to develop human resources in the Mekong Region. In the actual document released at the Mekong-Japan Summit meeting, however, few details were given regarding any planned educational development efforts between Japan and the Mekong countries, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam. The document simply reads:

To achieve “quality growth” and consolidate the rule of law, both sides shared the recognition that it is essential to cultivate and secure human resources, particularly legal and industrial professionals, and skilled workers.

In the last few days, a little more information has come out about the types of human resource development that will likely occur as part of the New Tokyo Strategy. Masashi Kono, the director of the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in Cambodia, recently spoke with the Phnom Penh Post about Japan’s efforts in the region. In the interview, he revealed an important detail missing from last week’s summit in Tokyo:

It’s a rare case for Japan to come and invest directly [in Cambodia]. At this moment, we’re promoting the Thailand Plus One or China Plus One [strategy].

For example, a Japanese company already has a presence in Thailand, so it considers setting up in a country nearby – at that moment Cambodia is the first candidate.

The minimum wage may have increased, but if you compare total expenses for workers in Cambodia, it’s still reasonable compared to Thailand or China.

And there are also advantages brought by the special economic zones.

Even in Kitakyushu, some businesses in automotive parts and education expressed interest in Cambodia following our visit. They were very eager for Cambodia.

Still, the [Cambodian] market is small, with just 15 million people, so not many businesses are not considering direct investment or exporting [Japanese] goods here.

The important detail related to “human resource development” is in bold. Why would a city in Fukuoka Prefecture, which is in southern Japan, be interested in Cambodia? On JETRO’s website,  some background on Kitakyushu City is given:

Kitakyushu City developed in line with the key industries including steel, chemical, metal, and ceramics and played a significant role in the modernization of Japan. From this historical context, there is an industrial cluster centered on business establishments concerning automobile, semi-conductor and members/materials. The reason for this robust business climate is drawn from its proximity to other Asian countries, an ample amount of land with a stable supply of water and electricity, low investment costs, and its imperviousness to natural disasters.

Part of the “industrial cluster” in Kitakyushu city is the Kitakyushu Science and Research Park (KSRP). KSRP aims to be a core academic research center in Asia focused on  automobiles, technology, and the environment. The research and industrial focus of KSRP matches  Japan’s strategic areas of focus in the New Tokyo Strategy: Asia’s aging societies, creating green cities, and providing automobiles to the growing middle class. One project within KSRP is to create a “Silicon Sea Belt” (SSB) whereby  Kitakyushu city acts as a hub connecting research centers and industries in South Korea, Shanghai, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and, eventually, the Mekong states like Cambodia. The SSB would focus primarily on semi-conductors. Another project is to create the technology cities need to reduce smog and pollution, a growing problem in many of Asia’s fast developing countries. The various projects within KSRP, which bring together public and private universities, industries, and research centers, are designed to be exported to other countries, thus making some companies in Kitakyushu interested in Cambodia (and also Laos, Myanmar, etc.).

When it comes to “human resource development” specifically, KSRP has one major project: the Hibikino Semiconductor Academy.

In order to support the education and re-education of postgraduate students and engineers from the electronics industry, the Hibikino Semiconductor Academy provides training services along with classroom lectures in cooperation between industry and universities. The training services include practical lessons in which semiconductors are designed, tested and evaluated.

It is likely the human resource development the New Tokyo Strategy mentions is related to the KSRP generally (after all, Prime Minister Hun Sen visited the city after the Tokyo summit) and the Hibikino Semiconductor Academy specifically. I suspect the goals of KSRP will align with Japan’s support for developing universities in the Mekong Region (similar to the Japan-Vietnam university project). This soft-power move will see scientists and engineers from the Mekong regions studying or working in KSRP. When these scientists move back to their home country, they will bring with them friendly relationships with various Japanese businesses. One piece that isn’t known yet, regards the effects these developments will have on primary and secondary education. I suspect the ministries of education in the various Mekong states will start pushing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) education to develop the “human resources” needed to enroll in Japanese-supported universities and, eventually, the KSRP.

Like Cambodia, Laos experiencing exam cheating through Facebook

As national examinations quickly approach this month, many students in Cambodia and Laos hope to use social media sites like Facebook to get an early glimpse of the questions on the test. Radio Free Asia has an interesting story in Laos where government officials deny the cheating while parents speak openly about it:

Another father, who denied to be named, said he was not surprised by the cheating.

“It routinely occurred during the previous school year, but the information was not shared as widely as it was this time,” he said.

Similar issues have plagued Cambodia in the past, but last year’s crack down on cheating has changed the system. As a result of the strict examination procedures — which resulted in high rates of student failure, Universities have seen a rise in enrollment for 2-year associate degree, which does not require students to pass the high school exit examination.

Will Laos implement a similar anti-corruption regime like Cambodia? Is cheating on school examinations rampant in other Mekong Region states like Myanmar or Thailand?