Big four ranking successes and how they do it

The ARWU reflects university strategies, it also shapes them

Leah Dowsett from Curtin U analyses the performance of four Australian institutions in the Academic Ranking of World Universities, “to determine whether increased prominence of global university rankings has influenced strategic planning.” Her analysis and conclusions appear in the new issue of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.

Where she looked: Miss Dowsett examined the ARWU performance of Curtin and Deakin Us, QUT and the University of Wollongong, “the only Australian institutions to have risen almost 200 places or more since first appearing on the ranking.”

What she found: The four changed the way they reported achievements as their ARWU rankings improved.

“Accounts of national grant success and levels of research income switched to statements which emphasised research active staff, highly cited researchers, internationally co-authored publications in high-quality journals and citation counts. These modifications match indicators used in the ARWU and global university rankings more broadly.”

The fab four also changed the attributes they used in branding, the examples they provided in marketing promotions, even the corporate strategies they set out. Dowsett cites examples since 2015 of the four “re-positioning,” “with rankings playing a key role for some.”

Which led to changes in the actual institutions:  “They have worked to improve both publication counts and quality, not only seeking to recruit high quality staff, but also demonstrating commitment to nurturing in-house talent, beginning with higher degree students and early career researchers. They have also undergone large staff and administrative restructures, reworked research strategies and nurtured partnerships.”

To what result: “Ranking outcomes are not the sole determinant of most university strategies; nonetheless, they can have a significant influence on how institutional strategies are set. For example, international students are a sizeable source market for Australian institutions and published ranking results offer a simple means of self-promotion on the global stage. The need to retain and grow this cohort has meant universities have sought ways to assist them to retain and improve their placings.”

And then there is the focus, “on becoming research intensive and globally savvy, perhaps as a by-product of seeking to either mitigate or take advantage of their dependence on the international student cohort.”

Where it might take them: “The rise in prominence of international rankings has influenced planning activities at Curtin, Deakin, QUT and Wollongong, particularly in later years, and highlight how their strategic choices have contributed to them becoming Australia’s ‘fast movers’ on the ARWU to 2018. For these four institutions, while the next foreseeable challenge may be to secure or regain a place in the top 200, their performance to date suggests the notion of attaining world-class status still appears imminent as a tangible reality.”