Misleading Rankings and Labels

By TAN Kee Wee
(MediaCorp 938LIVE’s Money Talks, Monday, 4 October 2010, 7.20 am, 9.20 am, and 7.20 pm)

After going through a soft patch, demand for mistresses in China, also known as “er nai”, which means second breast, has rebounded strongly in the past year.

The surging demand is a windfall to the middlemen whose job is to recruit young school girls as mistresses. According to these middlemen, the starting salaries of mistresses are not based on good looks alone.

Apparently, girls from prestigious schools and universities can earn 8 times more than girls from lesser-known schools.

The gap in salaries explains why students in general take a serious interest in the standing of their schools or universities. If you’re the head of a university, this is even more important.

That is why last week, the President of NTU had to explain to us why his university’s ranking, which fell significantly, was not an accurate reflection of the high quality of education offered there.

The typical university today is like a factory and its products are its graduates. If the products sell well, or rather its graduates secure high-paying jobs, then the factory benefits because it justifies the high school fees charged.

One way of improving a university’s ranking is to excel in research. This gives outsiders the impression of a stimulating research environment in campus.

Unfortunately, building up a research environment usually takes decades. To speed up this process, most universities hire reputed professors from all over the world.

The main drawback of this method is that usually, even if the famous professors are employed, their busy schedules restrict their interaction with students. In the end, students do not enjoy a more stimulating research environment.

But this is a tried and tested business model. It’s easy to think that, as an employer, you have been misled. Well, some Chinese businessmen have taken this business model one big step further.

The medieval city of Prato in Italy has a population of around 200,000. For centuries, it was famous for producing the world’s finest fabrics. But in the 1990s, cheaper alternatives from factories in China drove many Prato firms out of business.

At the same time, a transformation took place in Prato. Using loopholes in European laws, Chinese factories began to establish a foothold in Prato.

So successful have they been that today, Prato is home to the largest concentration of Chinese in Europe. There are more Chinese-owned companies than Italian ones in Prato. In these Chinese-owned firms, legal and illegal Chinese migrants work round the clock, in cramped conditions just like their counterparts in China.

They churn out cheap clothes, shoes and accessories, often with low quality materials imported from China. And then they sell these goods at high mark-ups, taking advantage of Prato’s historical reputation.

Because everything is made in Prato, the products churned out by these Chinese factories qualify as “Made in Italy”. This means that it’s no longer clear where’s the line between “Made in Italy” and “Made in China”.

In the end, the real sellers of Italian goods suffer as buyers retreat. Likewise, with misleading university rankings, real graduates suffer as employers hire less. The people who suffer least from such misleading labels and rankings are the Chinese mistresses.

One reason is their shortage. The other is the nature of their job. The best jobs today are not the ones which can be offshored, or rather sent overseas. The best jobs today are the ones that require face-to-face interaction. On that basis, these Chinese mistresses will continue to strike it big.