by GARRY CARNEGIE
The RMIT University web site indicates that “there are at least 15 global ranking schemas, of which (QS, ARWU and THE) are considered the most influential”.(1) The QS ranking scheme seems to be broadly regarded of importance across the sector in Australia.
The ranking schemas adopt different criteria, with some universities doing well in some global rankings, and doing poorly in others. (2) The end result is a confusing array of global university rankings, specifically for audiences, such as journalists, parliamentarians, parents of future students and others, who may not fully appreciate or understand the varying criteria adopted.
Typically, the corporatised university marketing focus, seems to result in individual universities actively promoting the rankings which position the institution favourably, with little or no mention of the others.
In a recent commentary in Campus Morning Mail of 2 September 2021, entitled “Aus unis remain primed for further gains in global rankings”, Angel Calderon stated that “rankings measure different things (e.g., reputation, research impact and ‘world class’ status) and appeal to different audiences.” (3) It is also true that the “International student ratio”, as described by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), is instrumental to ranking performance in some global university ranking schemes.
In Campus Morning Mail (September 1), this writer contributed a commentary on “Micro-measurement or macro-contributions approach to university management” in which the following argument was put. “The micro-measurement approach has the potential to outmuscle the agenda of the broader-scope macro-contributions approach, to our societies, which is more aligned with institutional collaboration rather than institutional competition. (4)
This commentary builds on that overarching argument by looking at a case of where global university rankings can stimulate organisational behaviour to the potential detriment of the higher education sector, specifically of public universities in Australia. It draws upon recent research in which the writer was a collaborator.
The question is posed: “What is the QS “International student ratio?”. The answer is drawn from the QS web site coverage of the following indicators, stated as “international faculty ratio/International student ratio (5 per cent each)”:
A highly international university acquires and confers a number of advantages. It demonstrates an ability to attract faculty and students from across the world, which in turn suggests that it possess a strong international brand. It implies a highly global outlook: essentially for institutions operating in an internationalised higher education sector. It also provides both students and staff alike with a multinational environment, facilitating exchange of best practices and beliefs. In doing so, it provides students with international sympathies and global awareness: soft skills increasingly valuable to employers. Both of these metrics are worth 5 per cent of the overall total. (5)
By implication, the higher these two ratios the better performing are the universities producing these outcomes as a key component of institutional strategic planning. This determinant has direct implications for the rankings of all universities by QS. The particular concern of this commentary, however, is with the international student ratio.
Most public universities in Australia have continued to push this ratio in an upwards direction until the year ending December 31 2019, when COVID-19 sent international student enrolments, specifically of “fee-paying onshore overseas students”, in the opposite direction. These enrolments continue to be in retreat in Australia due to the ongoing impacts of the country’s borders being closed due to the global pandemic.
The Australian higher education sector became over-reliant on this source of income as a proportion of total income from continuing operations. (6) For the year ending December 31 2019, a key performance indicator (KPI), ascertained by the researchers, of fee-paying onshore overseas students as a proportion of “total income from continuing operations” was found to exceed 20 per cent for 23 of the 37 (63 per cent) public universities based on the audited consolidated financial results of these universities, see:
Exceeded 40% 2
Exceeded 30% to 40% 8
Exceeded 20% to 30% 13
In short, these universities became strongly reliant on the income derived from fee-paying onshore overseas students. The quality of financial risk and social risk disclosures made by all eight public universities in Victoria was also found to be minimal in a qualitative, neutral and constant format. In short, the disclosures were deemed to be of low quality. (7)
Both the existence and weighting of the international student ratio of QS provided managerial incentives towards enhancing this measure as this strategy has favourable implications for ascendancy of Australian public universities under this important global university scheme.
The other two ranking schema mentioned earlier, the Times Higher Education (THE) designates a 7.5 per cent weight to “international outlook”, including 2.5 per cent to “international-to-domestic-student ratio”. The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), otherwise known as the Shanghai Ranking, does not provide this specific form of incentivisation, and is the most widely used for ranking the world’s research universities.
The micro-measurement approach to public university management in this specific scenario has been exacerbated by the ranking criteria of several global university ranking agencies. Increasing the international student ratio comes at the cost of growing institutional risk, and the potential loss in future of viability and vitality. Such costs and risks may extend to concerns about the longevity of these institutions, both during and after national, regional and international crises, such as pandemics.
The macro-contributions approach to public university management, on the other hand, is concerned with aspiration to operationalise mission and vision statements, with an agenda to serve and support local, national, regional and global societies, including the natural environment which sustains all of us, both humans and non-humans alike. This agenda entails contributing to society by answering “big questions” and solving “wicked problems.”
This broader-scope macro-contributions approach to university management is “more aligned with institutional collaboration rather than institutional competition”. (8) It is argued that global university rankings stimulate the latter and make the former more difficult to attain.
Carnegie et al., (2020, 2021) (9) define accounting as a technical, social and moral practice. This analysis of university ranking measures and responses further confirms that accounting, as it manifests itself in KPIs and ranking schemes, is indeed not a mere neutral, benign, technical practice. Rather, accounting is pervasive, enabling and disabling; it has implications for organisational and social functioning and development and shapes our future.
Emeritus Professor Garry Carnegie, RMIT University
(5) See QS World University Rankings 2022 (topuniversities.com) Updated by staff writer on 10 September 2021.
(6) See: “’Taming the black elephant’: Assessing and managing the impacts of COVID-19 on public universities in Australia”, Meditari Accountancy Research (forthcoming).
(9) Carnegie et al., see (2020) It’s 2020: What is Accounting Today? (wiley.com) and Carnegie et al., (2021), see: https://www.ifac.org/knowledge-gateway/preparing-future-ready-professionals/discussion/redefining-accounting-tomorrow