The last of the major global rankings for this year was released last week. The Best Global Universities (2021 edition), compiled by U.S. News, ranks the world’s top 1,500 universities across 86 countries

Again, Australian universities have done well. Of the 39 universities ranked, 20 are included in the top 300, compared to eight in the 2016 edition. Compared to last year, RMIT and Swinburne U moved up from the top 400 to the top 300 band. These two institutions together with UTS, La Trobe U and Uni Wollongong are the fastest year-on-year improvers.

The five top Australian institutions which have improved the most between 2016 and the 2021 edition are:

RMIT, up by 254 positions from 535th to 281st

UTS, up by 251 positions from 413th to 168th

Western Sydney U, up by 233 positions from 507th to 274th

LT U, up by 208 positions from 582nd to 374th and

Curtin U, up by 172 positions from 346th to 174th.

QUT (at 197th) is the third non-Group of Eight (Go8) institution which now features in the world’s top 200. Uni Melbourne remains Australia’s top institution and is followed by Uni Sydney and the rest of the Go8, then UTS and Curtin.

Of the 35 Australian universities ranked in the top 1 000, 26 moved up in standing, one remained unchanged, and seven declined.

Best Global’s methodology

U.S. News is a late comer to global rankings, although it has been publishing a ranking of the best colleges and universities in the United States since 1983.

Prior to the inaugural edition of the global rankings in 2014, U.S. News reproduced the QS World University Rankings for consumption in the United States.

The Best Global Universities rankings aim is to provide insight into how universities compare globally and how institutions from the United States stand on the global stage. Of the world’s top 20 institutions, 15 are from the United States, four from the United Kingdom and one from Canada.

This ranking heavily relies on bibliometric measures (citations weigh 50 per cent and publications 25 per cenr). The remaining 25 per cent of the score is drawn from an academic reputation survey, undertaken by Clarivate.

Participation in the reputation survey is by invitation. Clarivate selects the list of academics invited to respond, and are carefully selected by geographical region and discipline for statistically relevant sampling. These academics are asked to provide feedback on which institutions they consider to be the strongest universities and research institutions in their discipline.

There were 7 712 respondents to Clarivate’s 2020 academic survey, which were added to the pool of respondents from 2016 to the present. Overall, the total number of respondents was 30 222. There are two indicators derived from the reputation survey: a global research reputation and a regional research reputation, which are equally weighted at 12.5 per cent.

In addition, there are 11 other indicators, with varying weights. All these indicators are bibliometric-focused and are based on data from Clarivate’s Web of Science.

Performance Ranking of Scientific Papers for World Universities

The NTU Ranking was released earlier this month. It was first published in 2007 by the Higher Education Evaluation and Accreditation Council of Taiwan (HEEACT). The ranking is now published by the National University of Taiwan and covers over 820 universities.

This ranking system is designed to evaluate and compare research universities’ achievements in scientific research by using objective indicators. This ranking does not measure an institution’s reputation.

There are 26 Australian universities included in this ranking, of which 12 are included in the world’s top 300, and 24 in the world’s top 500.

Uni Melbourne tops the Australian rank and is followed by Uni Sydney, then the remaining six Go8 universities, followed by Curtin U and UTS. Griffith U and Uni Wollongong made it to the top 300.

This ranking comprises eight measures focused on bibliometrics, which together represent three different criteria of research production: research productivity, research impact and research excellence. This ranking uses a method which looks at publications and citations over the past eleven years. It also uses current articles (2019) and citations and H-index of the last two years.

One key feature of this ranking is that it measures both the long-term (11 years) and short-term (two years) research performance of universities. On these bases, we can see which institutions are making concerted efforts at improving research performance, flat lining, or falling behind the pace setters.

Ranking schemas are not all the same

Ranking schemas measure different things and there are no two schemas which yield similar results, even if they use the same source of bibliometric tools. There are two analytic companies which are used by rankers:

Clarivate is used by Best Global Universities, CWTS Leiden Ranking, Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), NTU Ranking and the Round Universities Ranking.

Elsevier is used by QS World University Rankings, Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings and SciMago.

Then there are different methodological aspects which vary from schema to schema, such as time span for publications and citations data. There are also technical nuances such as inclusion of self-citations or not in the overall count of citations.

Even more important, ranking schemas assign different weights to each indicator based on their specific criteria. For example, the academic reputation survey accounts for 32 per cent of the overall score for THE, 40 per cent for QS and 30 per cent for Best Global.

These differences in methodology help to explain the significant discrepancy in ranks which we see for Australian universities across the various ranking schemas. For example, Canberra is ranked 193rd in THE but is ranked 456th in QS and 604th in Best Global.

Parting thoughts

Despite all the turbulence faced by Australian universities, global rankings delivered great joy throughout the year.

Earlier expectations that Australia may see a decline in standing, in part fuelled by the adverse publicity around the reliance on international students (particularly those from China) and the offset of the health crisis, evaporated as QS released its World University Rankings last June.

Subsequent releases of global rankings (such as Leiden, the ARWU and THE) reaffirmed that Australian universities were having its best year ever. Although, there appears to be a relative downward trend for some Australian universities in the reputation surveys. In part, this is attributed to the ongoing rise of Asia.

The perceived improvement of Australian universities rest on research impact and output measures, in part driven by “gains” in productivity ratios.

Over recent years, ranking schemas are minimising the extent to which institutions directly submit information for the purposes of rankings. This is happening for a variety of reasons. Fundamentally it is one way to ensure there is greater consistency in what statistical information is used in the productivity metrics.

We cannot take for guaranteed that next year will be of equal success for Australian universities in global rankings. The disruptions brought about by the health and economic crisis as well as the prolonged closure of borders for international travel are likely to have an impact in the performance of Australian universities.

The implementation of the Job-Ready Graduate package and related measures are also likely to be a source of ongoing concern for university leaders.

Finally, there is the forthcoming round of the Excellence in Research for Australia in 2023. It is a much-maligned exercise because it is seen for many as costly, time-consuming and an impost on academics’ endeavours.

It leads us leads us to ask two key questions:

How many of these measurement regimes are desirable and sustainable both at an institutional and system level? and

How best can these measurement regimes be utilised to strengthen the overall quality of research and the overall mission of universities in being a key driver for Australia’s economic productivity and wellbeing?

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT







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