Australian universities lead a new global ranking index, in spite of ‘hostile’ government treatment, researchers say

Australian universities lead a new global ranking index, in spite of ‘hostile’ government treatment, researchers say
"Sydney, Australia - August 17, 2012: Students and graduates converge on a lawn before the University of New South Wales (UNSW) library on a clear winter morning."
  • A new ranking index combines the three main global university rankings to form a single index, examining 10 years of data. 
  • It ranked the University of Melbourne as the 28th best university in the world, followed by University of Queensland and the Australian National University.
  • The researchers behind the project noted a lack of government support during the pandemic risked hurting the sector long-term, but that they were optimistic this would shift moving forward.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

A new higher education ranking has placed five Australian institutions in the top 50, comprising almost 10% of the top 50 universities.

The Aggregate Ranking of Top Universities (ARTU) ranked the University of Melbourne as the 28th best university in the world, followed by University of Queensland and the Australian National University at 42nd and 44th respectively. 

The report also placed University of Sydney and University of NSW in the top 50. 

In its third year, the ARTU combines the three main global university rankings to form a single index, examining 10 years of data. 

Nicholas Fisk, the ranking’s creator and deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of NSW, told the Australian Financial Review the project provides a comprehensive picture of the state of the university sector.

“It smooths out the volatility and variance of the three major ranking systems,” Fisk said.

The rankings show that Australia has catapulted in global standing over the past 10 years, with the country’s Asia Pacific neighbour China following closely behind. 

“In the past decade, Australia has gone from five universities in the top 200 to 13, China has gone from five to 10,” Fisk said.

“It is Australia and China that have really been the movers and shakers.”

With 13 universities in the top 200, Australia is behind only the U.S. with 54 and Britain with 27.

Fisk said that considering the country’s population, its growth as a higher education superpower was impressive. 

“​​10% of the world’s top 50 universities are in Australia,” Fisk said. 

“That is truly remarkable for a country with 0.3% of the population and 1.7% of GDP.”

Optimism for universities post-pandemic

UNSW vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs said the internally developed index came together when the institution began working on a 10-year strategic plan to understand how it was performing against the world’s best.

In 2015, UNSW set a target to be in the world’s top 50 universities by 2025, a goal that has been achieved four years early.

“We wanted to be hard on ourselves and objectively measure what we had done,” Jacobs said.

“Rankings are one way of looking at how we are performing relative to other universities in the world,” he said, adding, “We are not suggesting that rankings are in any way perfect, but they are about the best surrogate measure we have.”

Fisk said each of the major rankings had quirks, adding to the arguments for its aggregated index.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities gives 33% of its score for Nobel and Fields medallists over the past century, whereas the Times Higher Education places significant weight on reputation by asking academics which universities they think are the best, and QS judges teaching quality by looking at staff-to-student ratios.

Jacobs said the success of Australian universities was “not something that happens overnight” and suggested it was based on strong foundations, including healthy public investment over the past three decades.

Universities are Australia’s third largest export industry, contributing a record $22.4 billion to the Australian economy as of 2017. However, the shockwaves of the pandemic rocked the sector hard, exposing the uneven nature of government funding and its internal business models. 

In the past two years, international student enrolments plummeted in the face of closed borders, resulting in a 4.9% fall in operating revenue from 2019 to 2020, and projected losses of $2 billion by the end of 2021. 

Figures from Universities Australia also cast doubt on the sector’s health.

They show that while total public funding for the sector has grown by nearly 60% since 2009, driven by a substantial increase in enrolments, in real terms, funding per university place grew by less than 1% each year.

Its research shows the proportion of funding per place that universities spend on teaching has fallen from 94% to 85% in that same time frame. 

Similarly, Australian Government funding for teaching and research infrastructure between 2009–10 compared to 2016–17 dropped from almost $1,400 million to just under $200 million.

Jacobs acknowledged the coalition government’s policies have overlooked the sector — it missed out on a funding increase from the 2021 Budget — but said he was optimistic the risks exposed over the past two years would spark renewed investment in the space.

“We’ve been through a difficult time with government. Some would say that it’s been a pretty hostile environment to be working in. But I don’t believe that will continue because it is not in Australia’s best interests,” Jacobs said.

The top five universities in the world are: Harvard, Stanford, Massachussetts Institute of Technology, Oxford and Cambridge. The rankings that feed into the ARTU are the Academic Ranking of World Universities from China, those from Times Higher Education and QS.