Over the next few weeks, several global rankings will be released and will present us with the initial effects of COVID-19 on the standing of universities. In the meantime, let us focus on the latest developments which give us insights as to what lies ahead for Australian universities.

Nature Index

The 2021 edition of the Nature Index, released on 20 May, shows that Australian universities managed a continuous growth in output in the 82 high-quality science journals covered in this index, despite the circumstances experienced during 2020. (Scroll down for the table).

This is one of the first global rankings which includes data on the publishing patterns observed during the pandemic year, as the index reflects outputs published from 1 January 2020 to 31 December 2020. In recent weeks, the Round University Rankings (from the Moscow based RUR Agency) and the Centre for World University Rankings (in the United Arab Emirates) were released, but their data preceded COVID-19.

The Nature Index includes 16 Australian universities, which is one more than last year with the inclusion of the University of Tasmania at 488th.

Seven universities moved up in position. Worth noting  are this year’s stand outs

* The University of Queensland (69th) replaces UNSW (76th) as Australia’s highest ranked institution. Uni Queensand had an annual change in adjusted share of 33.2 per cent compared to 12.1 per cet for UNSW. UTS moved up 84 positions from 455th in 2020 to 371st and had an increase in adjusted share of 41.4 per cent. Finally, RMIT moved up 26 positions from 426th in 2020 to 400th in 2021 and had an increase in adjusted share of 12.4 per cent.

And eight universities dropped

Monash U is  most notable, dropping out of the top 100 (87th in 2020) to 101st. Monash U’s adjusted share declined by 8.2 per cent. Other Group of Eight universities which declined in standing are ANU (down 30 places from 123rd to 153rd), Uni Sydney (from 171st to 193rd) and UWA, from 261st to 302nd.

Global  spread

The United States has the highest number of universities included in the 2021 rankings (125) followed by China with 110, then Germany with 42, the United Kingdom with 33, Japan with 19. Australia is sixth overall with 16. This is a remarkable result for Australia on two grounds: Firstly, we only have 43 universities and secondly, and as I reported in CMM in March, we appear to perform better in subject rankings which are not in the Natural Sciences and Life Sciences & Medicine.

Over time the number of universities from the United States has decreased by 14 from 139 in 2016 to 125 in 2021, while the number of universities from China has increased by 46 from 64 in 2016 to 110 in 2021. China’s rise has been at the expense of Japan, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, and other high-income economies. All those countries have fewer universities now included in the world’s top in the Nature Index than in 2016. Australia has remained competitive and is up by one from 2016.

More to come from China

Although the number of Chinese universities which are ranked in the world’s top 50 has gone up from 6 in 2016 to 13 in 2021, there is still progress yet to be made, particularly for those outside the top 200. By contrast, the number of universities from the United States has decreased by three from 29 in 2016 to 26 in 2021. Over the past five years, on average 53 per cent of the USA universities have ranked in the world’s top 200 compared to 41 per cent of Chinese universities.

How Nature indexes

The Nature Index is based on the fractional count of outputs in 82 selected journals covering life sciences, physical sciences, chemistry, and earth and environmental sciences. The index also covers the two journals (Nature and Science) which are used in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). To enable comparison over time, adjusted share is used as it considers variations in the number of articles published in the family of journals under the Nature signature year after year.

The Nature Index ranks the world’s top 500 universities across 35 countries in 2021. In addition to ranking universities, the Nature Index also includes corporate, government, healthcare and non-government or non-public organisations. My commentary focuses is on universities.

Scopus indexed publications – YoY comparison

There are no surprises in saying that there was a 6.4 per cent increase for Australian institutions in the number of scholarly output publications indexed in Elsevier’s Scopus – from 110,990 in 2019 to 118,080 in 2020.

Universities up and down 

There were 11 universities which recorded an increase in output greater than 10 per cent, while another 12 increased greater than the national average (6.4 per cent) but less than 10 per cent. Another 12 institutions remained unchanged or experienced an increase below the national average. There were only four Australian universities which experienced a decrease in the overall count from 2019 to 2020.

By comparison, there were six Australian universities which experienced a decline in output between 2018 and 2019. Therefore, it is not unusual for institutions to record a decrease in output one or two consecutive years and then have a boost later. What is important is keeping in perspective the overall trend and what is happening in the research and research training space across Australia. During the pandemic year of 2020, Australian researchers managed to maintain their research output at a level above what was experienced in the years preceding the pandemic.

So far, so good

There are several factors which may have led to this increase in output in 2020 which are surely being debated vigorously in many academic circles. But this uplift in research output is likely to benefit, in the short term, Australian universities in various global ranking schemas. Metrics where Australian universities are likely to see continued uplift are bibliometric based (including per capita measures) but less so in the reputation surveys and income related measures.

The question is what will happen once the effect of staff cuts, budget shortfalls, reduction in funding allocated to research endeavours, realignment of institutional priorities and other factors kick in. We may be one to two years away from seeing an impact of these in global rankings.

But then Australian universities may continue to stand-out in the global rankings at the expense of others. Australia’s annual scholarly output production increased above the world average (6.4 per cent compared to 4.4 per cent) between 2019 and 2020 but increased below the world average in the preceding years. Countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan saw an increase in outputs but at a rate below the global average. The United States experienced a modest increase (0.7 per cent) by contrast China increased output by 9.7 per cent.

Worth keeping in mind that the number of scholarly outputs is one of many input variables used for university rankings.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT


Standing of Australian universities in Nature Index – top 500 academic institutions, 2020-2021
Institution 2020 World Rank 2021 World Rank Movement in rank Count 2020 Share 2020 Change Adjusted in Share 2019-2020
Queensland 102 69 33 522 160.78 33.2%
UNSW 86 76 10 544 155.01 12.1%
Monash 87 101 -14 540 125.43 -8.2%
Melbourne 125 121 4 580 110.75 4.2%
ANU 123 153 -30 328 87.71 -19.1%
Sydney 171 193 -22 376 74.72 -10.4%
UWA 261 302 -41 244 43.56 -18.4%
Adelaide 323 316 7 236 41.21 -0.4%
Wollongong 311 340 -29 145 36.72 -15.4%
Curtin 339 369 -30 152 32.48 -12.8%
UTS 455 371 84 105 32.15 41.4%
Macquarie 380 399 -19 142 29.01 -3.8%
RMIT 426 400 26 113 28.55 12.4%
QUT 417 408 9 125 28.1 7.9%
Griffith 437 459 -22 85 23 -6.4%
Tasmania outside top 500 488 123 20.96 11.8%
Source: Nature Index,
Note: The Nature Index database undergoes regular updating, corrections, adjustment of institutional hierarchies, and removal of retracted papers and thus the live website can differ from the frozen annual tables.



to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education