Bias Against Asian Universities

German professors are more likely to respond to those seeking information on doctoral programs if they are educated in the U.S. than at more prestigious institutions in some Asian countries, study finds.

February 15, 2018

Academics need to ask themselves whether they discriminate against overseas scholars on the basis of their home country, according to a researcher who says he has found evidence of a “caste system” in global academe.

Professors in Germany were far more likely to respond to a request for doctoral supervision from U.S. university-based researchers than to those from Singapore and Vietnam, even if the Asian applicants’ universities were more highly ranked, an experiment found.

Nearly 400 sociology professors were sent identical applications, all with ethnic Chinese-sounding names, purporting to be from Yale University, Pennsylvania State University, the National University of Singapore or Vietnam National University, Hanoi.

Fifty-one percent of Yale candidates received a positive response, compared with 43.4 percent for Penn State, 30 percent for National University of Singapore (NUS) and 29 percent for Vietnam National University.

U.S.-based candidates were nearly three times more likely to be given extra information in their response, such as graduate school suggestions, and more than twice as likely to receive an enthusiastic response or to be addressed by their first name.

This is despite the fact that NUS does better than Penn State in many international rankings. Despite NUS’s “success as a university, it does not seem to have been able to shake off the label of a scientifically (semi-)peripheral Southeast Asian country (at least in the eyes of many German university professors),” concludes “Global inequality in the academic system: effects of national and university symbolic capital on international academic mobility,” published in Higher Education.

The study also revealed an Ivy League bias -- Penn State’s sociology department performs better than Yale’s in several rankings, but its fictional candidates were still less likely to receive a positive response.

The findings point to the existence of a “global academic caste system,” with the “U.S. or the U.K. at the top,” that has “significant consequences for how the international mobility of students and academics is channeled,” according to the paper.

The study is only “small and exploratory,” and similar experiments in other countries might yield different results, according to Daniel Drewski, a research associate at the Free University of Berlin and one of the authors.

Nonetheless, the results showed that academics paid more attention to “country or region” than rankings, Drewski said, although he added, “It’s also useful to pay less attention to universities’ rankings … The ideal would be to make decisions based on individual merit.”

“Overall, the emergence of this caste system is related to the distribution of economic power and historical legacy,” he said, which was something that academics could do little about.

Still, academics could reflect on their own biases when making such decisions, he said. The German professors surveyed in the research had made informal, personal decisions by email, which were more likely to be biased, he argued, because quick judgments were more likely to rely on a cursory look at someone’s home country and university.

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