Australia in the Asian Century: Improving university rankings

The Asian Century White Paper sees higher education as a key sector in developing capabilities for economic success in what it calls ‘the Asian century’ and sets a national objective that ‘by 2025 10 of Australia’s universities will be in the world’s top 100’.
A number of questions arise from this objective, including the appropriateness of world rankings in setting and measuring goals; the degree of investment required to improve rankings and a decision on which ranking system to use.

World rankings have largely arisen in the last decade and there are now five major world university ranking systems. They have variations in methodologies but all stress research investment and performance over other measures such as teaching quality. As a recent Group of Eight analysis states: ‘As they are currently structured world university rankings do not relate well to the missions of universities whose principal mission is not research, or at least not internationally-referenced basic research’.

The Asian Century White Paper uses the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) which in 2012 placed 5 Australian universities in the top 100. Alternative systems are the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE) which has Australia with 6, the QS World University Rankings (QS) with 7, the Leiden Ranking (of scientific performance) 0 and Webometrics 2.

There are many reported deficiencies in world ranking systems including the availability of comparable data, the emphasis on research, the bias to English language research and publishing, the inability of specialist niche institutions to be recognised, the arbitrary nature of the weighting measures, and the changes to methodology.

Despite these deficiencies world rankings are used as market indicators that affect student (both domestic and international) choice, as guides for investment (both government and non-government) and as measures of aspirations and assessing improvements. In Australia both the Government, in the Asian Century White paper, and the opposition have referenced rankings in setting policies.

In December 2011 the opposition spokesperson for Education, Christopher Pyne said a Coalition government would assist ‘at least’ the Group of Eight Universities into the ‘highest fifty ranked universities worldwide in the next four years’. Using THE rankings he pointed out that the number in the top 50 under the Labor Government had fallen to two compared to six under the Howard Government in 2004. ‘Our universities have fallen in international comparisons in the last six years. It is a situation that demands a response and not an excuse’.

However there are dangers in using rankings to set and compare policies as factors beyond institutional and government control affect movements within the rankings.

Changes in methodology make comparisons with previous years problematic. THE rankings which commenced in 2004, the year when Australia had six universities in the top 50, changed its methodology in 2010 when it broke away from the QS system. Australian universities then dropped from five in the top 50 in 2009 to two in the 2010 top 50. However using the breakaway QS 2010 rankings Australia maintained its position with five in the top 50. Changes in methodology rather than government policy may account for the changes noted by Christopher Pyne and point to the problems for future policy makers in assessing the success of a goal that ‘by 2025 10 of Australia’s universities will be in the world’s top 100’.

Furthermore other institutions will also be aiming to maintain or improve their position. Movements into the top 50 or top 100 rely on others dropping out. The ARWU is produced by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University. It commenced in 2003 as a means of evaluating China’s universities against the world’s best universities and guiding China’s efforts to create elite universities. It is now a leading global guide for universities and governments.

Analysis by THE of its 2012-13 rankings noted institutional effort and government investment are driving Asian improvements at the expense of western universities. Statements such as ‘Investments in China’s elite universities are paying dividends’, ‘Empirical evidence of a power shift from West to East’, and ‘Signs that public funding cuts are damaging the US' and the UK's global competitiveness’ suggest that Australia is now competing with a wide range of institutions to improve its position.

A key input for improvement will be research investment. The Asian paper does not commit to increased funding but the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Technology Sydney, Ross Milbourne, estimates an extra $10 billion a year in research funding would be required to double the number of Australian universities in the top 100. The 2012–13 budget estimated $8.9 billion will be spent on higher education this financial year suggesting that total funding would need to double to meet Professor Milbourne’s estimates.


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