In CMM, Angel Calderon addresses building trust in universities.  This effectively means in “public universities”, given the historical development and structure of the Australian Higher Education Sector today. He aims to show how “university leaders and senior academics can use the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (hereafter “SDGs”) as a framework to showcase how they are working towards achieving peace and prosperity for people and the planet and reducing inequality, while also tackling climate change and preserving oceans and forests now and into the future”.

Specifically, SDG 16  “Peace, justice and strong institutions”, is to: “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” (1).  Related to this, Calderon states, “universities have direct involvement and work with NGOs, governments and industry. This means we need our universities to be strong enough to maintain their ethical advocacy efforts for improved governance, transparency and accountability at all levels of society (SDG 16)”.

In contrast,  Australia’s public universities generally appear to be captured by global university rankings as a form of numerical, narrow-scope form of governance. The present pre-occupation with GURs in Australia appears to stand in the way of public universities’ meeting SDG16.

What is the purpose of our public universities? As public institutions they are obliged to act in the public interest for the benefit or advancement of society in accordance with their missions and visions. For instance, the enduring purpose (or mission) of the University of Melbourne “is to benefit society through the transformative impact of education and research” (2).

GURs, however, instil an organisational culture concentrated on the “micro-measurement” approach to university management. This departs from the “macro-contributions” approach to university management (3) and results in “governance by numbers” (Supiot, 2017) or “management by numbers” (4).  As Supiot argues, “governance by numbers gives immense power to those who construct the figures, because this is conceived as a technical exercise which need not be exposed to open debate” (2017, p. 163) (5).  Arguably globalisation relies on governance by numbers derived from information systems that produce and analyse both financial and non-financial information as ingredients of ever-growing multitudes of metrics or key performance indicators.

KPIs do not specifically address all major aspects of activity, attainment and categories of performance and risk measurement of public universities. Academic citizenship, ethics, and risk taking are just three examples of what is not in the domain of GURs (Carnegie, 2021) (6).

Academic citizenship in higher education is vital to maintaining the integrity and cohesion of the sector at its highest level of attainment. There are countless academic citizenship activities in the AHES, for instance, which are typically not recognised in KPIs (Beatson et al., 2021) (7). For the optimisation of public universities as a collective, and for society’s benefit, it is vital for academic citizenship to be widely recognised and respected as the essential “bonding mechanism” enabling capability, cohesion and connectedness in the world of public universities and beyond.

Concerning ethics, what ethical evaluations of a university’s ethical (or perhaps not) behaviours are provided in GURs? According to Sedigh (2016, p. 65) “present ranking systems totally neglect the ethical issues involved in university performances” (8). SDG 16 is essentially focussed on instilling and inculcating ethical behaviour and deep respect for the public interest, including nation building broadly within public universities. According to Carnegie and Parker (2021),” the transformative (or corrupting) power of GURs has concerningly stimulated a self-interested corporate culture and dysfunctional behaviours on a scale not previously imagined in higher education. The warnings are clear” (9).

In terms of heightened risks assumed by our universities, rankings appear to be of little or no information value or a hindrance.  Australian public universities appear, in general, not to have appreciated or respected the risks of progressively increasing across time their reliance on income derived from fee-paying on-shore overseas students as a percentage of their total income from continuing operations (Carnegie et al., 2021) (10). Rather than being viewed as an issue of major concern, this risk enhancement strategy, albeit intended to increase income, is rather well rewarded by the QS university ranking (Carnegie, 2021) (11).

Rankings indeed over-simplify organisational and social contexts and conditions (Peters, 2017) (12).  Moreover, it is important to “beware unintended consequences of simplistic approaches” (Hazelkorn, 2019) (13).

With a heavy focus on GURs and related gaming activities, public universities seem to have delegated their performance measurement decisions and actions to various competitive ranking agencies. These agencies, however, are not held accountable for the global effects of their selected KPIs. This narrow focussed approach to transparency and accountability of public universities works against facilitating the macro-contributions approach to university management for “improved governance, transparency and accountability” (Calderon, above), expressly in accordance with public universities’ tailored mission and vision statements.

Public universities in Australia can aspire to set a better example to the rest of the world.  They can purposefully operate well beyond the narrow prism of, and overemphasis on, GURs. As public institutions, they are actively encouraged to do so, dedicating themselves to the public interest and benefitting society and nature, with due attention to SDGs. In the process, they can collectively capture the mantle of the “most trusted” public universities worldwide.  That would be a hallmark of distinctiveness.

Garry Carnegie, is an emeritus professor at RMIT

Endnotes [shown as (1), (2) etc above]

1 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), available at: THE 17 GOALS | Sustainable Development (

2 The University of Melbourne, Web Site, see: Advancing Melbourne (

3 Carnegie, G. (2021) in CMM, 1 September, available at: Micro-measurement or macro-contributions approach to university management (

4 Same as 3. above.

5 Supiot, A. (2017), Governance by Numbers: The Making of a Legal Model of Allegiance, Hart Publishing, Oxford.

6 Carnegie, G.D. (2021), “Accounting 101: redefining accounting for tomorrow”, Accounting Education, Latest articles, 17 December, available at: Accounting 101: redefining accounting for tomorrow: Accounting Education: Vol 0, No 0 (

7 Beatson, N.J., Tharapos, M., O’Connell, B.T., de Lange, P., Carr, S. and Copeland, S. (2021). “The gradual retreat from academic citizenship”. Higher Education Quarterly, Early View, available at:

8 Carnegie, G. and Parker, L. (2021) in CMM, 24 November, available at: Rankings: irrelevant and wrong for universities (

9 Sedigh, A.K. (2016), “Ethics: an indispensable dimension in the university rankings”, Science and Engineering Ethics, 23(1), pp. 65-80.

10 Carnegie, G.D., Martin-Sardesai, A., Marina, L. and Guthrie, J. (2021), “‘Taming the black elephant’: assessing and managing the impacts of COVID-19 on public universities in Australia”, Meditari Accountancy Research, EarlyCite, available at:

11 Carnegie, G. (2021) in CMM, 16 September, available at:

12 Peters, M.A. (2017), “Global university rankings: metrics, performance, governance”, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 51(1), pp. 5-13.

13 Hazelkorn, E. (2019), “The dubious practice of university rankings”, Elephant in the Lab, 13 March 2019, see:



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