The previous and the current issues of The KAIST Herald each present an article about the recently released university rankings and how well KAIST did on them compared to other universities and to its own performance last year. While critics of the rankings themselves would point out what they believe are the innately problematic aspects of the ranking system, there may still be ways to make do with the ranking system and promote better higher education around the world. That is precisely what I suggest institutions should do — instead of arguing over which ranking criteria are more appropriate — by looking beyond the numbers, trying to fathom how the ranking system is designed, and holistically analyzing how the top-tier universities made it to where they are.
To admit that university rankings may be tainted with political motivations is one thing; to dismiss the rankings as entirely meaningless is another. The good that could come out of the rankings is clear: see how others do well and do the same. However, I believe that the statistical readings of the rankings have been overinterpreted by KAIST in improving its international reputation, fattening its public relations portfolio, and pursuing the “perceived goodness” of the institution.
University rankings are centered on the belief that, a dozen or so of carefully chosen numbers are capable of evaluating how well a university is doing. These numbers are therefore representative of a particular value that the ranking entity believes is essential of a good university. Among many such metrics, “teaching” and “international outlook” are what seem to so conveniently aggregate a vast array of factors into a single number, across all the three rankings mentioned above. ARWU defines its “Quality of Education” criterion as “alumni of the institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals”. THE would like to simplify the complex interactions between international students and the domestic community by merely combining a few numbers, each pertaining to the ratio of international students to domestic students/staff. QS is doing no better: it takes into account the number of international students and bluntly shoves it into their rankings as 5% of the total score.
KAIST is no exception to the pitfall of excessive reliance on statistics. It “achieves” the continually increasing influx of international students every year by means of generous scholarships and aggressive overseas public relations, and its international outlook in the THE rankings has in fact been consistently on the rise in the last six years. However, it is still uncannily easy to point out just how uninviting KAIST might be to international students: there are no religious spaces to accommodate different beliefs; there is no diet plan catering for the needs of different cultures; English courses are often taught in Korean; announcements, booklets, and brochures are accompanied by poor translations, if at all. KAIST mysteriously continues to make its way up in the “international outlook” criterion despite the reality.
Chasing the numbers alone has evidently failed to bring effective improvements to the campus environment. Universities in general should put forth practical and realistic solutions that bring about actual and tangible progress on integration issues as well on other criteria, whose deceptively conclusive numbers may have blinded the KAIST administration along with many others around the world.