Australia’s ascendancy in global rankings continues. Of the 23 Australian universities ranked in the world’s top 500 in the 19th edition of the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), 13 moved up in standing; eight moved down and two remain unchanged.

While media attention tends to focus on the performance of the well-endowed and research-intensive institutions, the big highlights are often in the movement that occur in the institutions which stand in the middle bands. It is also worth noting the upswing in trajectory over the past five years.

This year’s big movers are:

  • Swinburne, which sees an uplift of 97 places from an estimated rank of 366th in 2019 to 269th. This improvement was driven strongly by the recruitment of an additional six highly cited researchers in 2019 and an increase in the number of publications in Nature and Science.
  • Newcastle, which moved up 53 places from an estimated rank of 418th in 2019 to 365th. Newcastle regained some lost ground in 2019 when it down a band. This year’s improvement was driven also by increasing by two the number of highly cited researchers.
  • UTS, which moved up 52 places from an estimated rank of 288th in 2019 to 236th. UTS also increased its overall number of highly cited researchers by two and boosted its scores in the publications indicator.

Over the past five years the big movers are:

  • Swinburne, which moved up by an estimated 164 places from 433rd in 2016 to 269th this year.
  • RMIT, which moved up by an estimated 157 places from 487th in 2016 to 330th in 2020. The uplift has been driven by boosting its scores in publications, articles in Nature and Science, and to a lesser extent by highly cited researchers.
  • UTS, which moved up by an estimated 135 places from 371st in 2016 to 236th in 2020.
  • Wollongong, which moved up by an estimated 105 places from 330th in 2016 to 225th in 2020. The upswing has been driven by higher volume of publications, including in Nature and Science. Of course, the uplift has been aided by having highly cited researchers.

Over the past five years, the number of Australian universities ranked in the world’s top 500 in ARWU has remained unchanged. What we observe is that Australian universities continue to move up in positions and to the next highest band – like UNSW, which for the second consecutive year is in the world’s top 100.

 Upcoming institutions

The other vital thing that we observe is that there are another 11 Australian universities which are ranked between 501 and 1000 – what the ARWU used to call the “candidate” institutions. Two such universities are the University of South Australia (UniSA) and the Australian Catholic University (ACU), which are now on the verge of making it to the world’s top 500. UniSA has an estimated rank of 505th and its improvement is driven by increased volume of publications. ACU has an estimated rank of 524th and its improvement is driven by highly cited researchers which has contributed to an uplift in volume of publications.

Key to success

While it cannot be disputed that Australian universities have seen an improvement in the overall volume of publications, the success for many universities has been vested on the recruitment of highly cited researchers. These are the researchers who are in the world’s top 1 per cent of researchers based on citations.

The list of Highly Cited Researchers is compiled by Clarivate Analytics and uses the Web of Science. Since 2015, the list has been updated annually. These yearly updates have eroded some of the stability for which ARWU was recognised in the early years. For the second consecutive year, the list contains a ‘cross-field’ category, which in part, help to explain the uplift for many universities over the past two years. The highly cited research indicator counts for 20 per cent of the overall score

Across the Tasman

The University of Auckland is New Zealand’s highest ranked institution (up by 31 places to 221st compared to 252nd in 2019), followed by the universities of Otago, Canterbury and Victoria University of Wellington. These have an estimated rank of 368th, 445th and 475th respectively. There are four other New Zealand institutions which are included in the ARWU: Massey, Waikato, Lincoln and AUT, they are ranked in the 601-1,000 band.

Since the start of the ARWU in 2003, New Zealand has increased the number of universities in the world’s top 100 by one.

Geopolitical shifts

Overall, there are 34 out of 41 Australian universities ranked in the ARWU list of 1,000 institutions. This means that 83 per cent of Australian universities are ranked by the ARWU compared to 40 per cent for the United Kingdom and 7 per cent for the United States.

While the United States continue to dominate the ranking in terms of overall volume in the world’s top 100 (41 in 2020 compared to 45 in 2019), it has four fewer institutions in the top 500 (133 in 2020 compared to 137 in 2019).  There is an overall long-term decline in the standing of universities from the United States. In the first edition of ARWU in 2003, the United States had 161 in the world’s top 500, of which 58 were in the top 100.

In turn, we see that the number of universities from mainland China increased from 59 in 2019 to 72 in 2020. China added two more institutions to the world’s top 100 and many other institutions moved up in band too.

What lies ahead?

While the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 and the extended closure of international borders on the Australian university sector will be front of mind for most of us right now. Focus on global rankings and strategic positioning is a long-term objective.

It appears unavoidable that possibly one or two more Australasian universities will make it to the world’s top 100 in coming years. Bearing in mind that global rankings tend to adjust methodology from time to time.

For some of the top ranked institutions, the pursuit of higher standing in global rankings cannot be squarely attained on recruiting more highly cited researchers.

Based on the ARWU methodology, the room for improvement for the top research-intensive universities is limited. They already perform well in the volume of publications, including Nature and Science. Improvement can be assured if their stellar academics and alumni are recognised with a Nobel Prize and Field Medals.

For all universities, regardless of age and status, the long term strategy should be to focus not only increasing volume of publications but also for increasing collaboration (both internationally and intra-regionally), boosting publication in top journals and strengthening multidisciplinary research.

Institutions also need to be cognisant that the open access movement is also changing the publishing landscape. On this note, we also need to keep in mind that the Chinese authorities have announced that the number of papers published in internationally indexed journals, especially those included in the Science Citation Index (SCI) or the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) should not be used as key indicators in China’s academic evaluation system. These indexes are currently in use by the ARWU.

As rankings reflect past performance and there is a time lag between investment and attainment of outcomes, any impact of the current health and economic crisis on bibliometric-specific rankings or research focused rankings will not be felt until 2022. However, we can expect some impact will be visible in the major rankings (QS and THE) next year, because of their student, staff and financial input measures.

As for ARWU, the highly cited researcher measure is the most volatile and the one that is most likely to be influenced by reduced research funding because of the drop in international students revenue. This will have an impact if highly cited researchers are let go or if further recruitment of highly cited researchers is frozen. We should have a clearer picture by October when Clarivate will issue the list of Highly Cited Researchers for use in ARWU next year. In terms of publications, we are not seeing a decline in the overall volume of publications in 2020 compared to 2019.

ARWU indicators

The ARWU is produced by ShanghaiRankings Consultancy. It uses six indicators to rank universities, including the number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, the number of articles published in Nature and Science, the number of Highly Cited Researchers and articles indexed in Science Citation Index – Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Index based on data in the Web of Science, and per capita performance.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT


Standing of Australian universities in the 2020 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)
Band Inst Rank 2016 Rank 2019 Rank 2020 Movement 2016-20 Movement 2019 – 2020 Australian rank 2020 ^
Top 100 * Melbourne 40 42 35 5 ▲ 7 1
Queensland 55 54 54 1 Unchanged 2
ANU 77 76 67 10 ▲8 3
UNSW 134 94 74 60 ▲18 4-5 (5)
Sydney 82 81 74 8 ▲ 6 4-5 (4)
Monash 79 75 85 -6 ▼-10 6-7 (6)
UWA 96 99 85 11 ▲ 13 6-7 (7)
Top 200 Adelaide 139 137 152 -13 ▼-15 8
Top 300 Curtin 211 211 210 1  ▲ 1 9-15 (9)
Wollongong 330 219 225 105 ▼-6 9-15 (10)
Deakin 214 261 233 -19 ▲ 28 9-15 (11)
UTS 371 288 236 135 ▲ 52 9-15 (12)
Macquarie 207 223 245 -38 ▼-22 9-15 (13)
Swinburne 433 366 269 164 ▲ 97 9-15 (14)
Tasmania 293 289 288 5 ▲ 1 9-15 (15)
Top 400 Griffith 315 329 308 7 ▲ 21 16-22 (16)
James Cook 279 259 310 -31 ▼-51 16-22 (17)
QUT 296 304 320 -24 ▼-16 16-22 (18)
La Trobe 339 311 324 15 ▼-13 16-22 (19)
RMIT 487 354 330 157 ▲ 24 16-22 (20)
Newcastle 350 418 365 -15 ▲ 53 16-22 (21)
Western Sydney 397 367 367 30 Unchanged 16-22 (22)
Top 500 Flinders 321 406 421 -100 ▼-15 23
^ The values within parentheses is the estimated rank. Values preceding the parentheses as published by ARWU.
* ARWU publishes individual ranks for the top 100 institutions. The reminder institutions are published in bands (e.g. 101-150, 151-200, 201-300 and so forth.
The table shows the estimated rank as calculated by the author using the weighted score.

Angel Calderon, RMIT University


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