Australian universities continue to shine in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), produced by ShanghaiRankings Consultancy.

There are 34 Aus universities included in the ranking, of which 24 feature in the world’s top 500. Let us put Australia’s performance into perspective before delving into the results for our universities and what drove them to perform well.

Geopolitical shifts

Although universities from the USA continue to dominate at the top (40 are in the top 100), there are 129 included in the top 500, down four from 133 in 2020. Since the ranking started in 2003, there are 32 fewer universities ranked in the world’s top 500.

By comparison, the number of universities from mainland China ranked in the top 500 increased from 72 in 2020 to 84. Over the 2003 to 2021 period, the number of Chinese universities has increased by 75, a remarkable achievement.

Australia’s inclusion of universities in the top 500 increased by one, with the addition of the University of South Australia. Over the lifespan of this ranking, Australia has gone from having 13 universities to 24. In turn, the UK has gone from having 42 in 2003 to 38 in 2021. However, the UK has seven universities in the top 50 and Australia one (University of Melbourne at 33rd).

Among the world’s top 100, the UK has eight universities ranked in this category and is second to the USA. Then Australia and China follow with seven universities each, then Switzerland with five. 13 other countries account for the other 33 universities included in the world’s top 100.

Australian movers in the top 100

Of the seven Australian universities which rank in the top 100, UNSW has continued to steamroll. UNSW improved by nine positions to 65th from 74th in 2020 and 134th in 2016. The two main drivers for UNSW have been an increase in the number of Highly Cited Researchers -HiCis – (from 20 in 2018 to 32 in 2020) and a higher number of articles published in Nature and Science over the past five years.

Both Australian National University (ANU) and Uni Western Australia (UWA) saw a decline in standing. ANU now ranks 76th compared to 67th in 2020, 77th in 2016. UWA now ranks 96th, the same rank as it had in 2016, down 11 places from 85th in 2020.

Uni Adelaide along in next band

Only the University of Adelaide sits in the 101-150 band, returning after a decline in 2020  to the 151-200 group. Adelaide’s improved standing is greatly attributed to the fact it gained seven HiCis from 10 in 2019 to 17 in 2020. There are no Australian universities ranked in the 151-200 category.

Top 300

There are nine Australian universities in this band. The standout is Griffith University which has deservedly made into the world’s top 300 after having two years in which performance declined considerably.

Unlike many other Australian universities which have banked on increasing their number of HiCis, Griffith’s improved performance is greatly attributed to its increased proportion of articles published in Nature and Science.

We also see that James Cook University (JCU) and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) returned to the world’s top 300. Over the past five years these institutions have experienced mixed results. In the case of JCU, it doubled the number of HiCis from five in 2019 to ten in 2020. QUT’s improvement is mainly attributed to increased number of articles indexed in Science Citation Index – Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Index based on data from the Web of Science.

Top 400

There are five universities in this band. Four of them unchanged in the category. Tasmania moved down from the top 300 to driven by weaker scores in the number of HiCis and articles published in Nature and Science.

The other four universities in this group (La Trobe U, RMIT, Uni Newcastle and Western Sydney U) improved their scores in the number of articles indexed in Science Citation Index – Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Index and rely less on the number of HiCis. Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see how those four institutions continue to navigate their performance in global rankings. At least two of these institutions are likely to move into the world’s top 300.

Top 500

There are two institutions in this band. Flinders University last ranked in the top 400 in 2016. Flinders does not have any HiCis, so it registered no score on this dimension, but it is one of the very few Australian universities which scores in the number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.

The University of South Australia (UniSA), which ranked in the 601-700 band in 2018, has made it for the first time into the world’s top 500. UniSA was just outside the top 500 in 2020 and their improved standing is in part attributed to the addition of one more HiCi (to a total of two) in 2020, and improved scores in Nature and Science.

Oldest global ranking and a narrow methodology

This edition of ARWU is the nineteenth consecutive edition and is the precursor to all global rankings.

There has been a critical change in its methodological construct to the HiCi indicator.

Effective from 2016, ARWU adopted a yearly update of the HiCi List, compiled by Clarivate. This annual update has added volatility to the indicator and has contributed to the inclusion of more Australian universities in the top 500. In addition, effective from 2019, ARWU has included over 2,000 researchers to the list who are considered exceptional performers across several fields.

Very few institutions score in the number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.

As discussed last week (CMM 13 August), the annual movement of institutions can be predicted on the basis that only 40 per cent of institutions scored on the Alumni dimension, and 30 per cent of institutions scored on the Staff dimension. This leaves institutions being assessed on three indicators: HiCis, articles in Nature and Science, and articles indexed in Science Citation Index – Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Index. The final indicator is a per capita measure, which somehow reflects the performance seen in the three indicators for which most institutions are judged upon.

Since its inception, the ARWU has played an important role in monitoring and benchmarking institutional performance across world regions and national systems, it has influenced national policy and the way institutions make decisions about strategy and reallocation of resources.

The ARWU has achieved its key goal, which was to measure the relative progress of its universities towards world-class status. This is a ranking which has an inherited bias in that it is all about measuring prestige on a narrow methodology.

The real winners in this ranking are not those institutions which owe their performance to the prestige of their alumni and academic staff and HiCis but to those institutions which are making an important contribution through their research output and impact, community outreach, and educating the masses.

Readers are encouraged to look at the various global rankings to evaluate the performance of universities and national systems. Every ranking schema has flaws, weaknesses, and strengths. Rankings measure different things and appeal to different audiences.

University leaders and institutional planners are also encouraged to look beyond any of the global rankings in how best to reorient the university of today to confront many of the dilemmas we currently face.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT


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