Plus ratings special: Australia advances up the Times Higher Education big list

In the swim

Three sure signs of summer are (i) news stories warning the “state’s a tinderbox” (ii) shark sightings and (iii) rip survival strategies. The first two started weeks back and yesterday Jak McCarroll from the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney was first into the water with a five-point plan to stay alive in the ocean. Swimmers will find one of his “rip escape methods” especially useful; “stay afloat,” Dr McCarroll says. Makes sense to CMM.

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Rankings revealed

The THE rankings are out this morning, appropriately announced at the University of Melbourne, which as usual leads Australia. At 33rd, the same spot it occupied last year Uni Melbourne is the only Au university in the world top 50. THE rankings chief Phil Batty is discouraging year on year comparisons, due to substantive changes to methodology, year on year numbers also jump about a bit.  However this years rankings do not diverge from the trend of recent years and in any case rankings are to journalists (and PR people at winning universities) what blood banks are to vampires.

The Australian National University is next after Melbourne but it falls out of the first 50, dropping from 45th to 52nd. The rest of the Group of Eight follow, all within the first 150. The University of Sydney continues to improve its position, it improved 12 places between 2013 and 2014, to 60th in the world and this year it lifts again to equal 56th. New VC Ian Jacobs will surely be delighted with UNSW’s rise from 109 to 82 and UWA improved from 157 to 109. The other Go8 institutions all improved, UoQ 60 (up five), Monash 73 (up 10) and the University of Adelaide 149 (from 164).

As usual in the commercial rankings there is less a gap than a chasm between the Eight and the others – at least 50 places between Adelaide and UTS, the only Australian university in the 201-250 band. However there are eight universities in the 251-300 group (Charles Darwin, Flinders, Griffith, James Cook, Newcastle, QUT, Wollongong and U Tas).  Deakin and Macquarie which are often considered emerging challengers to the Go8 are all in the 300-350 group and La Trobe is ranked between 351 and 400.

All up Australia rates seventh in the world, with 31 of 39 public universities on the THE list and 22 in the top 400.

UniMelb biomechs

And the winner is …

Australian Research Council Chair Aidan Byrne will be pleased with the THE rankings. “It seems that the country’s Excellence in Research for Australia initiative, which launched in 2010 and evaluates universities on the quality of their research, is paying off,” Times Higher’s Phil Batty says. With people piling on the pressure for a research impact measure, in addition to the ERA citation approach, this os well timed praise for the ARC approach. 

But, there is a but

And it’s about bucks. Mr Batty also warned that Australia needed to increase funding to maintain research performance. “The government will need to increase higher education funding if its universities are to sustain this performance; in 2014, research and development spending in the country dropped to its lowest level since 1984 – 2.2 per cent of the federal budget. Australia will have to raise its game to ensure it can compete with the leading western powerhouses of the US and the UK and rising stars in Asia that are heavily investing in research.”

This impressed Universities Australia CEO Belinda Robinson as sound thinking indeed. “Mr Batty is correct. Our global competitors are looking the future squarely in the eyes with major investments in higher education, research and innovation. Australia now needs to step up our own level of public investment or we risk being left behind,” she said last night.

Careful with the W

An operator wise in the ways of higher education intrigue urges everybody to check the address before they suggest anything subversive to university leaders. It could be embarrassing indeed for correspondence intended for Universities Australia chair Barney Glover, VC of the University of Western Sydney, to end up with Group of Eight head Michael Spence, VC of the University of Sydney.

IRU outraged

It took a day for the Innovative Research University lobby to respond to the Group of Eight’s argument that research training funds should only go to universities with “world class research” in relevant areas, that is to say Go8 members, (CMM yesterday). This was presumably because it took that long for IRU chair John Dewar to calm down. “It was a simplistic and self-serving argument to protect its members from competition,” he said. Mild by the standards of more outspoken uni chiefs (morning Professor Craven) but La Trobe VC Dewar is a polite and understated bloke and this looks to CMM like his equivalent of incandescence.

Professor Dewar argued that using the Australian Research Council’s ERA rating rewards the past rather than preparing for the future and would deny standout researchers in not especially successful institutions a chance to compete.

“For a group that loudly proclaims its faith in university autonomy, the Go8 could show some belief in its fellow universities’ decisions and not beg for further government regulation. What are they afraid of?” Professor Dewar said. Certainly not an argument.

Nicholl to set standards

Carol Nicholl is the new executive dean of education at QUT. Professor Nicholl is best known as the founding chief commissioner at the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency. She resigned after a review by Kwong Lee Dow and Valerie Braithwaite recommended changes to the agency’s brief, which were adopted in legislation. QUT insiders say her appointment signals major changes for the faculty with management keen to lift its profile. Professor Nicholl has been at QUT for 12 months, undertaking a review of assessment strategies, she starts as dean in January.


No oi-oi-oing

Before anybody begins to think of writing “punching above our weight” consider where Australia is in the THE rankings – behind the US, UK, Germany, among others – and The Netherlands. The Netherlands! Granted the Dutch speak better English than most Australians but even so, their universities are outperforming ours on measures, many of which require working in a foreign language.

Singapore’s two universities are both outstanding performers, THE rates the National University of Singapore at 26th and the Nanyang Technological University at 55th. As the THE’s Phil Batty told CMM yesterday, “Singapore’s only resource is human, all its success depends on talented individuals – universities are absolutely fundamental.” Which is what Prime Minister Turnbull says about Australia and innovation. And as for the argument that our other resources mean we do not need to rely on education, Canada is a resource-based economy and it’s University of Toronto is 19th.

Overall, CalTech is number one on this morning’s THE list and while the US is down on last year it still accounts for 14 of the top 20.

Wollongong’s international achievement

University of Wollongong VC Paul Wellings will talk about international student mobility at the THE conference today including how his university embeds outbound mobility for Australian students. Too right it does! CMM spends a bit of time on Professor Wellings’ patch and knows a bloke there who did engineering and mandarin at UoW and spent semesters in China as part of his course. He is now in a postgraduate programme where he is using both. Want to know how Australia internationalises higher education? Watch Wollongong.

All rankings are local

Kylie Colvin from the Higher Education Consulting Group speaks fluent ranking and has an early analysis of this morning’s THE data. She suggests three key differences from last year. One is increasing the number of universities rated from 400 to 800 means more Australian institutions get guernseys, albeit way down the list, Another is an expanded peer review survey to cover more non-English language research, reducing US dominance. The third is the switch from the Thomson Reuters research database to Elsevier’s Scopus, which has a bigger base outside the United States.

According to Ms Colvin, UTS should be particularly pleased, repeating its Australian 9th place from last year, as should the University of Tasmania, which rates in the 251-300 bracket. And Flinders, Griffith and James Cook “brush past” Macquarie and Murdoch to the top 17 local institutions.

Hard to tell them apart

Melbourne University VC Glyn Davis had a piece in the Fin yesterday, on the economic role of universities. It was accompanied by a pic of what looks suspiciously like the University of Sydney’s old building, illuminated for last winter’s Vivid Festival. That’s the thing about universities for the Fin; they’re pretty much interchangeable.

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The many moocers at UoQ

The University of Queensland reports that its eight MOOCs to date have attracted half a million starters. The two biggies are The Science of Everyday Life and English Grammar and Style. UofQ provides its open access courses through the Harvard/MIT edX platform. Even though these MOOCs make no money they put UoQ before many people who would other wise never know about the brand – some 25 per cent of starters are from the US, followed by India with 10 per cent.

One result is puzzling, the course on how to respond to a climate change denier only attracted 17 000 starters. Maybe all the social media activists have worked it out already.

What appeals to internationals

Analysts’ analyst Andrew Norton is puzzled by new migration stats showing graduate visa holders were up 4 per cent to 26 260 in the 12 month to June 30 – down from a peak 40 000 in 2013. The visa allows international students to stay in Australia for 18 months after graduating, to acquire work experience and improve their English. This small increase is surprising as the programme is assumed to be a reason for increased international student demand, Mr Norton says. Maybe international students are just impressed by the quality of courses, unless it’s the falling dollar.

Politics of pudding

“Many apologies for the absence of dessert at the (Australian Political Science Association conference) dinner. This was not intentional, arrangements were lost in translation” – the University of Canberra hosts tweeted yesterday. A case of those who can can, those who can’t cater.