Why do Australian universities have an obsession with rankings?

Mar 22, 2021

Australia has the highest percentage of globally ranked universities in the world. Why? What are the implications?

There is a well-known “magic formula” that goes along the following lines:

Revenues from international education contribute to building scale in research through income to recruit eminent staff to undertake high-quality research and purchase necessary buildings and facilities to deliver additional research outcomes, which will lift status in global rankings, attract more international students, and so on.

Of course, research-intensive universities seek high rankings for strategic objectives concerning visibility and recognition to drive international research and industry investment and collaborations.

For most universities, however, the point of rankings is to drive international student recruitment to generate revenue streams that underwrite domestic employee benefits for teaching and research, investment in property, plant and equipment, and purchase of financial assets.

Australia has the highest proportion of Times Higher Education (THE) ranked universities in the world. Table 1 shows that 84% of Australian universities are ranked, compared to 78% in the UK, 13% in Germany, 4% in the US, and 3% in China.

Table 1: Global rankings for Australian universities in comparison to other countries

  Australia UK US Canada Germany Japan China Sth Korea France
THE Ranking
No in top 10  2  8
No 11-100  6  9 29  5  7  2  6  2  3
No 101-250 11 23 35  5 17  1  1  5  3
No 251-500 11 26 49  8 15  7 15  3 10
No 501+  9 41 63 12  7 106 69 27 24
Number ranked 37 101 184 30 48 116 91 34 41
No. of universities 44 130 4,298 103 380 795 2,688 203 n/a
Percent ranked 84% 78% 4% 29% 13% 15% 3% 17%  
Per cent in top 10 0% 2% 4% 0% 0% 0 0% 0% 0%
Per cent 11-100 16% 9% 16% 17% 15% 2% 7% 6% 7%
Per cent 101-250 30% 23% 19% 17% 35% 1% 1% 15% 7%
Per cent 251-500 30% 26% 27% 27% 31% 6% 16% 9% 24%
Per cent 501+ 24% 41% 34% 40% 15% 91% 76% 79% 59%

Australia has 17 universities within the 1-250 band, compared to 35 for the UK, 72 in the US, 10 in Canada, 24 in Germany, three in Japan, seven in China, seven in South Korea, and six in France. There are no Australian universities in the top 10; they come from the US and the UK,

But it can be asked, what’s the point of rankings anyway, when Germany doesn’t care about them and focuses instead on publicly funded higher education to produce good graduates and relevant industry research? This approach plays into the rationale for greater public funding for higher education.

There are many ranking systems, with some placing more emphasis on a particular metric than others. However, the results in terms of placement in a particular ranking range do not differ markedly. The Times Higher Education (THE) system was selected for detailed analysis in this paper.

Under the THE ranking system, teaching, citations, and research metrics each contribute 30 per cent to the total ranking score, industry income contributes 2.5%, and international outlook contributes 7.5% (international students, 2.5%, proportion of international staff, 2.5%, and international collaboration, 2.5%).

The reality is that Australia’s high place in THE global university rankings is essentially driven by the citation metric, offsetting low scores in the teaching and research metrics. Because of Australia’s very high international student intake, it also scores well in international outlook metric. In other words, many Australian universities are chasing rankings through citations rather than research or teaching.

Why do citations matter?

Citations are an easy target. They can be driven by recruiting staff with solid track records for publishing in highly ranked international journals and incentivising staff to deliver publication output.  The mantra publish or perish is alive and well.

Does size matter?

Australia has the sixth-highest average of FTEs in the 37 top-ranking universities in each country listed in Table 1 (after the US, Canada, Germany, China, and France). Six Australian universities have FTEs over 40,000, compared to none in the UK, nine in the US, four in Canada, five in Germany, eight in China, 11 in France and none in Japan and South Korea. However, overseas comparisons suggest that smaller universities can deliver high rankings through better research and teaching metrics.

Australia has 36 universities where the student to staff ratio exceeds 20:1, compared to none in the UK, one in the US, 33 in Germany, 17 in Canada, none in China, six in South Korea, and eight in France. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Australia ranks lowest in the teaching metric by some considerable margin.

Table 2 reports on the 37 Australian ranked universities’ performance metrics with a score over 70 compared to the top 37 ranked universities in other countries. A score of above 70 is considered an acceptable benchmark for the purpose of this exercise.

Table 2: THE Scores above 70 in universities ranked 37 and above in selected countries

Metric Australia UK US Canada Germany Japan China South Korea France
Teaching (30%)  6 17  1  2  2  1  1
Citations (30%) 27 36 36 13 24  4 10  3  7
Research (30%)  1 7 24  3  2  2  2  1  5
International outlook (7.5%) 35 37 12 17  4  9
Industry income (knowledge transfer) 2.5%  3  3  7  2 15  6 24 13

Table 2 reveals –

  • No Australian universities have a score over 70 in the teaching metric.
  • 27 Australian universities score above 70 on the citations metric. Only the UK and the US have more universities than Australia with a score above 70.
  • Australia has only one university scoring above 70 in the research metric, compared to seven in the UK and 24 in the US
  • Australia and the UK do well on international outlook, principally due to the proportion of overseas students in each country.
  • Australian universities do not generally perform well in the industry income metric.

In multiple ways, the boom in international education and the obsession with rankings has fundamentally distorted the Australian system. We have a situation in Australia of poor student to staff ratios, high proportions of overseas students, very high citation rates, but poor teaching and research scores.

So, what is the point? To be sure, citation numbers are up, with academics encouraged to prepare papers for publication in scholarly journals. But performance in research and teaching is mixed, with some universities doing teaching really well. However, good teaching is not recognised for gaining tenure and promotion as much as publication.

However, for many universities, the citation scores will never be good enough to overcome the weaknesses in other metrics to progress up the rankings scale. So why should they bother being ranked?

The conclusion might be drawn that more Australian universities should forget rankings and chasing citations and allocate more time and effort to teaching and high-quality research for application and practice that will inform teaching and engagement missions. A focus on rankings and recruiting international students distorts these priorities.

The obsession with rankings overlooks its futility and irrelevance to teaching quality, graduate outcomes, industry innovation, economic prosperity, and broader socio-cultural outcomes. But Australians have little choice but to go to a ranked university – a university committed to maintaining or going up the scale in international rankings systems by focusing on generating citations.

If Australia wants to become a clever country and a leader in creating jobs for the 21st century, our universities must prioritise creating talent. The importance of first-rate teaching, as one of the most effective forms of knowledge transfer, is often overlooked.

We must dispense with the notion that academic publication is a more worthy calling than teaching in our higher education system.

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