The big picture

Over the past five years, the number of universities ranked in Times Higher Education World Universities Rankings (THE WUR) has increased by 51 per cent, from 1103 in 2018 to 1662 to the 2022 edition, released Thursday. There were only 200 institutions included in the first global edition of 2004, which was a joint venture between THE and QS.

The ongoing expansion of global rankings serves to illustrate the extent to which rankings have become engrained in academic life and used as competitive instruments to recruit students and staff, as well as to pass judgement on the contributions that universities make to society.

Before we focus on the performance of our universities, let us focus on the changing global dynamics in addition to the methodological construct of this ranking. These are important considerations because they help us understand what drives the improvement or relative decline in performance each year.

Changing geopolitical landscape

To illustrate the changing global dynamics and how universities respond to these shifts, let us put into context how Australia compares to key countries.

Compared to last year, the number of Australian universities included in the ranking remain unchanged at 37. Last year, there were 28 ranked in the world’s top 500 and this year there are 29, with the inclusion of Uni Southern Queensland.

Among the top 500, there are 109 universities from the United States compared to 118 last year and 122 in the 2016 edition. There are 59 universities from the United Kingdom compared to 60 last year. China increased to 24 from 22 last year, an increase of 13 when compared to its 11 in the 2016 edition.

Overall, there is not an immediate threat to the standing of Australian universities in the global stage. This perception is consistent with what we have observed across the major global rankings issued this year. However, the ongoing success of Australian universities is not guaranteed, so the need for continued improvement is imperative given the financial difficulties they have faced over the past two years.

Rankings methodology

THE has used the same broad methodology since 2011, with some adjustments made mainly in the bibliometric indicators derived from Elsevier’s Scopus data set. The ranking consists of 13 performance indicators which are grouped into five pillars. Briefly:

* the teaching pillar, which accounts for 30 per cent of the overall score, consists of five indicators. One of these is the academic reputation survey, which weighs 15 per cent of the score, along with four per capita measures derived from information provided by institutions.

* the research pillar, which accounts for 30 of the overall score, consists of three indicators. One of these is the reputational survey, which weighs 18 per cent of the overall score, along with two per capita measures derived from information provided by institutions.

* citation impact accounts for 30 per cent of the overall score and is based on the Field Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI) as derived by Elsevier.

* international outlook accounts for 7.5 per cent of the overall score and is based on three indicators, each of which weigh 2.5 per cent. One of these is international co-authorship drawn from Elsevier’s Scopus database, and the other two refer to the proportion of international students and staff. For the latter two indicators information is provided by institutions.

* industry income accounts for 2.5 per cent of the overall score. It refers to the proportion of income for research and consultancy drawn from industry and is provided by institutions.

Performance of Australian universities

Once again, Australian universities have done well. 27 universities moved up in score and ten moved down in score. Compared to last year’s results, the improved performance of Australian universities continues to be driven primarily by the citations pillar, and to a lesser extent, the research pillar.

Australia’s top one-year movers are:

* Uni Southern Queensland (ranked in the 401-500 band) is the fastest one-year improver, moving up by 4.37 weighted points. This was driven by higher score in the citations pillar.

* Charles Darwin U (501-600 band), up by 3.38 weighted points and driven by higher scores in the citations pillar and the research pillar.

* Southern Cross U (601-800 band), up by 2.82 weighted points and driven by a higher score in the citations pillar.

* Uni Tasmania (301-350), up by 2.69 weighted points and driven by a higher score in the citations pillar.

* CQU (801-100), up by 2.43 weighted points and driven by a higher score in the citations pillar.

Of the institutions which dropped in weighted points, the most significant declines occurred at:

* Victoria Uni, which declined by 1.22 weighted points and dropped from the 351-400 band in 2021 to the 401-500 band in this year’s ranking. This decline was influenced by weaker scores in the citations pillar.

* Griffith U , down by 1.21 weighted points, was driven by weaker scores in the citations pillar, and remains ranked in the 201-250 band.

* Uni Melbourne, down by 1.12 weighted points, was driven by weaker scores in the research metrics and the citations pillar. Uni Melbourne dropped two places from 31st last year to 33rd this but remains Australia’s highest ranked institution.

* Uni Sydney, down by 1.06 weighted points, was driven by weaker in the research metrics and the citations pillar. Uni Sydney dropped seven places from =51st last year to =58th this year. It also went from being the second highest ranked to the fifth highest ranked Australian university.

Readers are encouraged to consider how Australian universities performed in the QS World University Rankings (CMM, 9 June) and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (CMM, 16 August).

Over the past seven years (i.e., 2016 through 2022 editions), Australia’s most notable improvers have been:

* Uni Canberra, which increased its overall weighted score by 30.68 from 25.25 to 55.93. UNi C has progressively moved up from the 701-800 band to the top 200, where it has ranked over the past three years. This year, Canberra ranks =170th. This progression has been driven solely by improvements on the citation impact pillar. On this measure, Canberra ranks 31st globally.

* Uni Southern Queensland, which increased its overall weighted score by 23.62 weighted points from 25.33 to 42.83. For five of the past seven years, USQ ranked in the world’s top 800, and in this year, it broke into the top 500. As noted earlier, improvement driven by citations.

* Western Sydney U, up 17.36 weighted points from 33.91 to 51.27. WSU has also progressively moved up in band from the 401-500 band, where it sat for the previous two years, to the 251-300 band. This year, WSU has moved up to the 201-250 band, an improvement driven by higher scores in the citations pillar.

* Curtin, up 16.94 weighted points from 33.39 to 50.34. Curtin has progressed from the 401-500 band in 2017 to the 201-250 band last year, and this year moved down to the 251-300 band. The decline in performance was driven by weaker scores in the citation pillar, but interestingly, Curtin U sees improvement in the teaching and research pillars. It is probable that Curtin will return to the world’s top 250 next year.

* Edith Cowan U, up 15.48 weighted points from 27.01 to 41.4. For four of the past seven years, Edith Cowan ranked in the 501-600 band, and for the past three years it has ranked in the 401-500 band. Edith Cowan’s improvement has been significantly driven by the citation pillar.

Let us now focus on the institutions which sit at the top and the movement we see across ranking bands:

* Top 50: Over the past two years, Uni Melbourne (ranked 33rd) is the only Australian institution in this band. In previous years, ANU also ranked among the world’s top 50. This year, ANU ranks =54th, up five places from 59th last year.

* Top 100 (51-100 band): Uni Queensland shares the same equal rank with ANU, followed by Monash U (57th), Uni Sydney (=58th) and UNSW (70th).

* Top 150 (101-150 band): Uni Adelaide ranks 111th up from =118th last year, followed by UWA at =132nd up from 139th last year, and then UTS ranks =143rd up from =160th last year.

* Top 200 (151-200 band): Three institutions with aspirations to move to the next band up. Canberra ranks =170th up from =184th last year, followed by Macquarie at 192nd compared to =195th last year and QUT at =193rd compared to 186th last year.

* Top 250 (201-250 band): In the 2016 edition there was only one institution in this band (UTS). There are now four: Griffith U, La Trobe U, Western Sydney U, and Uni Wollongong.

* Top 300 (251-300 band): In the 2016 edition, there were eight; now there are six: ACU, Curtin U, Deakin U, Flinders U, James Cook U , and Uni Newcastle.

* Top 350 (301-350 band): There are four institutions which progressively continue to make their way up: RMIT, UniSA, Swinburne U, and Uni Tasmania.

* Top 400 (351-400 band): Over the past six years, there were three to four institutions in this band. There are none in the 2022 edition. Two of these have moved up and one down.

* Top 500 (401-500 band): Progressively the number of institutions in this band is decreasing and there are three this year: Edith Cowan U , Uni Southern Queensland, and Victoria U.

Improvement driven by citations

Citation scores improved for 18 out of the 37 Australian universities, and 19 experienced a decline. Compared to last year, 27 universities improved scores, nine saw a decline and one remained unchanged. What we see this year is that the annual rate of improvement is lower than last year. One of the reasons there is a decline in the citation impact for many universities is because the first global burden of disease studies (2015 published), with many, many authors are now falling out of the five-year window.

It is worth pointing out that the citations pillar is based on the Field Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI) as derived by Elsevier. The FWCI score indicates how the number of citations received by an institution’s publications compares with the average number of citations received by all other similar publications. A FWCI of 1.00 indicates the global average.

It will be interesting to see what occurs next year. Equally interesting will be seeing what citations patterns evolve over the next two to three years with research focused on COVID-19.

Primed for further gains

Over the past seven years we have seen the number of Australian universities ranked in the world’s top 200 increase from eight to 12. We also see that Australian universities continue to move higher across bands. As I commented last year (CMM, 2 September 2020), the real battle between institutions is seen between those which are ranked between 201 and 400.

It is easier for institutions to make greater gains when these rank outside the top 500; it progressively starts getting harder as institutions move up the ranks.

Whilst there are concerns about funding and the ongoing restructuring brought by the pandemic, the outlook for Australian universities in the rankings remain strong. Australian university leaders will be hard-pressed on how best to allocate diminishing resources for learning and teaching (with an increased emphasis on remote learning), as well as research endeavours including doctoral training and focus on third mission activities.

Australian university leaders will also be pressed on deciding priority areas for research and for learning and teaching. There is the need for Australian universities to be distinguished from one to the other and identifying key areas of specialisation is one way to do so.

Allow me to repeat what I have said for some years now:

* universities are urged to reduce dependency on recruitment of highly cited researchers, or top researchers

* a more viable strategy is to support researchers (whether they are emerging, mid-career or established)

* create incentives to increase quality of outputs; strengthen collaboration (both domestically and internationally)

* continue to invest in research training, which includes the quality of research supervision.

* pay attention to the per capita metrics which comprise the teaching and research pillars, which are key to strengthening standing in THE WUR.

Readers need to be mindful that institutions can move up and down one year to the next. It is worth paying attention to the long-term trend and the various ranking schemas. Rankings measure different things (e.g., reputation, research impact and ‘world class’ status) and appeal to different audiences.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT


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