In this year’s Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, we see that 26 Australian universities moved up in overall score, whilst nine moved down. Federation and Charles Sturt are new entrants and they rank in the 801-1000 band.

The University of Melbourne remains Australia’s premier university at 31st and is followed by Sydney at 51st.

Overall, 37 Australian universities are included in the world’s top 1000. We also see that the number of Australian universities ranked in the world’s top 400 remains unchanged at 27.

This is not bad for a country which has 41 universities and enrolled 1.6 million students in 2019, of which 34% were international. These international students contributed $27.8 billion to Australia’s economy in tuition fees and goods & services in 2019 and played a vital part in the ongoing success of Australian universities in global rankings.

Once again, THE has increased the number of institutions ranked globally from 1,396 last year to 1,527 from 92 countries. However only 22 countries have five or more institutions included in the world’s top 500. Australia does very well in global rankings and is fifth in the overall count of participants.

In the 2014 edition, THE published a list of the world’s top 400 institutions, of which 19 were from Australia. Unlike other ranking schemas, THE has not shied away from massively expanding the coverage of institutions being ranked.

This year’s five Australian movers are:

  • ACU, which skyrocketed from the 351-400 band last year to the 251-300 band this year. ACU gained an overall 5.2 weighted points year-on-year. ACU’s improvement was primarily driven by the citation pillar.
  • Monash, which improved by 4.1 weighted points and moved up 11 places to rank =64th globally and moves to 5th in Australia, ahead of UNSW. Monash improved because of higher scores in both the teaching and research pillars.
  • Southern Queensland (USQ), which improved overall performance by 3.9 weighted points and moved up from the 601-800 band to the 501-600 band. USQ’s improvement was primarily driven by the citation pillar.
  • La Trobe, which improved by 3.7 weighted points and moved up from the 251-300 band last year to the 201-250 band. La Trobe’s improvement was primarily driven by citations.
  • RMIT, which improved by 3.2 weighted points and moved up from the 351-400 band last year to the 301-350 band. RMIT improved because of higher scores in both the research and citations pillars.

Of the institutions which dropped in standing this year, the most significant declines occurred at:

  • UniSA, which saw a drop in band from the 251-300 to the next one down (301-350). The decline was influenced by weaker scores in the teaching pillar and followed by the research pillar.
  • ANU, which dropped nine places from 50th last year to 59th. ANU’s decline was driven primarily by weaker scores in the teaching pillar.
  • Bond, which dropped from the 401-500 band to the 501-600. The decline was influenced by weaker scores in the citations pillar.

Top 200

There are now 12 Australian universities included in the world’s top 200, with the inclusion of Macquarie at 195th. For UTS, it is the third consecutive year in which it features in the top 200, and now ranks at 160th. For a second year Canberra and QUT remain in the top 200, with Canberra moving up 9 places to 184th whilst QUT moving down 7 places to 186th.

The other eight institutions are the most research-intensive institutions in Australia, of which five are more than 100 years old (sandstone institutions) and three were established post-WWII.

Next top 200

Fifteen Australian universities are ranked between 201 and 400. This is where the battle for improvement really resides. This is because what separates one institution to the next is 0.8 weighted points for those in the 201-250 range, or 0.5 weighted points for those in the 251-300 range.

The averaged rate of improvement for Australian universities in the top 400 is 1.47 weighted points this year. Clearly, we can continue to see on-going movement year after year.

We have seen that in previous years, universities have made it to the top on the basis of achieving high citation scores. The quickest way for institutions to improve on this metric (which accounts for 30 per cent of the overall score) is to recruit researchers equipped to publish papers which attract high volume of citations. This is not a sound strategy for improvement over the long term.

Key to Australian universities’ ongoing improvement is to reduce dependency on recruitment of highly cited researchers, or top researchers. A viable strategy is to sustain improvement over several years on multiple fronts.

This will mean nurturing researchers (from those who are emerging, mid-career, to established); increasing not just volume of publications but also quality of outputs; strengthening collaboration (both domestically and internationally) and continuing to invest in research training, which includes the quality of research supervision. Achieving all these objectives requires investment and it means that universities’ fund to support research and research training needs to grow year after year. A key issue is sourcing a continuous flow of funds to support these endeavours.

Another thing to keep in mind is that universities from the Asia and Pacific region are continuing to gain rise rapidly in global rankings.

Rankings galore

Since the first international university ranking, published by Asiaweek in 1998, ranking schemas have propagated. The first global ranking was published in 2003 by Shanghai Jiao Tong University with its Academic Ranking of World Universities. Then, THE and QS followed with the first commercial global ranking in 2004, which featured 200 universities spread across 29 countries.

These developments marked a significant turning point in what it meant to be a university in a world which was rapidly becoming globalised, driven by market forces and competition for students, financial resources, and academics.

It also meant that the reach for universities to recruit students (and their sphere of influence) widened from a strict domestic or local setting to beyond national borders.

There are at least 15 global ranking schemas, of which three (QS, ARWU and THE) are considered the most influential. Table 1 below shows the standing of Australian universities in these three major schemas.

Readers need to be mindful that the significant difference in ranks can be explained by the difference and weight of criteria within each schema. Rankings measure different things (e.g. reputation, research impact and ‘world class’ status) and appeal to different audiences.

This helps to explain how it is that, for example, Canberra ranks 184th in THE (significantly driven by citations) but it ranks =456th in QS or in the 601-700 band in ARWU. Or how Swinburne, which skyrocketed to the 201-300 band in ARWU, ranks 372nd in QS or in the 351-400 band in THE.

2020 Wrap up

Of the Australian universities ranked in the top 500 in QS (released in June), 16 moved up in position and nine moved downwards. What we observed is that the perceived improvement of Australian universities rests primarily on higher citations per faculty score. The downside is that the student to faculty ratio for Australian universities continues to worsen year after year.

The other thing that we learnt from the QS results this year is that Australian universities show a relative downward trend in both the academic and employer reputation surveys, with a small but noticeable fall (CMM 15 June). This is in part influenced by the rise of universities from the East Asia & the Pacific.

More recently, we observed that of the 23 Australian universities ranked in the world’s top 500 in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), 13 moved up in standing; eight moved down, and two remain unchanged (CMM 17 August).

In the end we can say that Australia has had a great year in global rankings.

But wait, there is more. One rating that has not received much publicity lately but it deserves due consideration is the Good Universities Guide (GUG), published by the Good Education Group.

The GUG has been published annually since 1992. The GUG ratings reflect the relative performance of Australian institutions in the domestic sphere compared to the several world university rankings which emphasise the global nature of education.

From 2016, the GUG publishes only a five star rating. If an institution has not received a five star rating, only its score is published. It is then up to readers to draw any conclusion they wish to infer from these results. The GUG contains 13 metrics across three categories: Institutional characteristics, graduate outcomes and the educational experience.

Over the years, results published in the GUG have shown stability from year to year. It does not produce an overall rank.

In this year’s edition, we see that Federation received the most five-star ratings (14) in the overall institutional level, followed by Bond (13). We also see that the universities with the highest research intensivity tend to perform poorly on the GUG’s student experience measures.

If the emphasis for students is to improve chances of gaining employment upon graduation, then go to study to regional universities. Regional universities that are typically outperformed by their metro counterparts in global rankings dominate GUG ratings for graduate employment.

Another key insight from the GUG results is that very few universities manage to combine strengths in measures of student opportunity, (i.e. Social equity / First Generation) with strong outcomes in student experience and graduate outcomes. This is where Federation outperforms everyone else.

Rankings are here to stay

There is no doubt that global rankings as an instrument of neoliberalism has lived up to expectations. We have seen that global rankings have:

  • Been dynamic, e.g. expanded coverage in both geography and subject areas, periodic methodological tweaks, and new products which further advances universities dependency on commercial interests.
  • Transformed universities to be part of an auditing performance regime which for the most part has enhanced the brand visibility for the elite and well-endowed institutions.
  • Been embraced as a system of global regulation and as a proxy measure of educational quality of their national systems.

But also, universities have legitimised global rankings in that they:

  • Continue to provide annual input (i.e. they have complied and satisfied with the annual data requirements required to rank universities).
  • Promote the results because these are deemed relevant to highlight perceived reputation, esteem, and impact to attract students, academic talent, and funding.
  • Support the range of related products and services these schemas promote and deliver globally (data analytics, conferences, marketing, and branding consultancies).

University rankings are generally disliked. Global rankings have become the tool by which governments and society in general pass judgement on the contributions that universities make to society, even though rankings have narrow criteria and are based on a limited set of indicators. Universities need to be cognisant that their overall mission and purpose is foremost being an anchor to society’s cohesiveness and serving the communities in which they operate.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT

Table 1: Standing onf Australian universities in the major ranking schemas and The Good Universities Guide
(sorted by period of establishment / year)
Institution QS ARWU THE GUG
World rank / band Number of 5 star ratings
Sandstone, post WWII and pre-Dawkins reforms (1850-1987)
Sydney (1850)   40 74 =51 3
Melbourne (1853)   41 35 31 3
Adelaide (1874)   106= 151-200 =118 1
Tasmania (1890)   308= 201-300 351–400 4
Queensland (1909)   46 54 =62 5
UWA (1911)   92 85 139 4
ANU (1946)   31= 67 59 4
UNSW (1949)   44 74 67 6
New England (1954)   801-1000 501-600 N/R 10
Monash (1958)   55 85 =64 5
La Trobe (1964)   398= 301-400 201–250 1
Macquarie (1964)   214= 201-300 =195 2
Newcastle (1965)   197= 301-400 251–300 2
Flinders (1966)   423= 401-500 251–300 2
James Cook (1970)   462= 301-400 201–250 6
Griffith (1971)   303= 301-400 201–250 11
Murdoch (1973) 571-580 601-700 501–600 9
Deakin (1974)   275= 201-300 251–300 10
Wollongong (1975)   196 201-300 201–250 8
Curtin (1986)   217= 201-300 201–250 7
Bond (1987)   414= 901-1000 501–600 13


Institution QS ARWU THE GUG
World rank / band Number of 5 star ratings
New universities from Dawkins reform period
UTS (1988)   133= 201-300 =160 3
Charles Sturt (1989)   801-1000 NR 801–1000 5
QUT (1989)   217= 301-400 186 9
Western Sydney (1989)   474= 301-400 251–300 1
Canberra (1990)   456= 601-700 =184 1
Victoria (1990) 551-560 901-1000 351–400 4
ACU (1991)   801-1000 501-600 251–300 3
Edith Cowan (1991) 651-700 601-700 401–500 7
UniSA (1991)   295= 501-600 301–350 6
Central Qld (1992) 591-600 NR 801–1000 7
RMIT (1992)   223= 301-400 301–350 3
Southern Qld (1992) 701-750 801-900 501–600 5
Swinburne (1992)   372 201-300 351–400 3
Federation (1994) NR NR 801–1000 14
Southern Cross (1994) 751-800 901-1000 601–800 4
Sunshine Coast (1994) NR 801-900 601–800 6
Charles Darwin (2003) 701-750 NR 501–600 5

The order of columns are based on publication date of rankings: QS was published in June, ARWU in August and THE in September.

The value within brackets next to the institution refers to the year established or granted university status.

NR means not ranked.


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