Many people wish university league tables would fade into the background.

I bring good tidings – it’s happening.

Why? Because once things settle – and we’re now past that establishment period – rankings are self-reinforcing and stable. There won’t be many surprises as we go forward, so the sport, if there was any, will evaporate.

The rankings were a big thing at first. I remember in the early 2000s the education minister Brendan Nelson declared that Australia should aim to have universities in the top 100. I agreed. We have top 100 cities. We are a leading nation. And beyond that within certain limits aiming for excellence can lift everyone upwards.

In 2003 the first Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking (now Shanghai Ranking’s Academic Ranking of World Universities) had ANU at 49 and Melbourne at 92. Quickly in 2004 another ranking appeared, published by Times Higher Education (THE), using Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) data. ANU was at 16, Melbourne at 22. My own university UNSW was at 36, and our neighbour Sydney at 40.

Then in 2011 a bomb dropped. QS and THE split and produced tables using different methodologies. Now it got confusing and frustrating for some – the QS data was largely as expected: ANU was 20, Melbourne 31, Sydney 38, and UNSW 49. But in the THE ranking ANU was 43, Melbourne 36, Sydney 71 and UNSW 152. Across the world universities suddenly found they weren’t where they expected to be, and managers felt the pressure to shine in all the rankings. The game was on.

But this wasn’t a like a football league where team quality changes each year. It was the methodologies and efforts to optimise reporting to fit the methodologies that was changing.

The main reason that league tables are becoming less significant is that the methodologies are settling down and each institution’s optimisation has caught up. Not much to see now.

Another reason is that feedback loops have swung into action to lock in performance. Visibly competitive universities attract competitive staff and students (and managers) that maintain their reputations. Reputation has enormous inertia. Places like Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard will be stably near the top of the tables for a long time yet.

Finally, in the past many Australian institutions felt the need to shine in league tables to stand out in the eyes of prospective international students. Post COVID many universities have refined their approach to international education and moved away from the simplistic – more, more, more – to carefully setting reasonable proportions of international and domestic students, so being ever more highly ranked isn’t as necessary.

I joined the management of UNSW in 2010 and have tried to support good teaching and research but also to help optimise our visible performance on the league tables. There were specific reasons why UNSW was in vastly different places in different tables. These things have been addressed and now we are 43 in QS, 70 in THE, and 65 in ARWU.  I feel this reflects where we are as a university. It helps us to attract competitive people and resources to support their academic goals.

My point is this. If the methodology of the league tables remains stable and if our optimisation is now done, there is not much more to do. The best strategy now is just to concentrate on being a good university, and we can put more effort into things that don’t count in the tables – good teaching, providing opportunities for students from different backgrounds, solving local problems via research etc.

Some young universities will still feel pressure to establish their reputations but there is an “under 50” list and various other metrics that can show quality. The expensive race for the top will become less intense in most places.

But won’t Australian universities be overtaken by the universities in Asia who are ascending the league tables?

Yes, we probably will inch down as universities in China, and India move up. Hopefully one day Africa and South America will catch up too. But this is not something to worry about. It will be good for the world if all boats of higher learning rise.

Shouldn’t I be more ambitious and aim for the top ten.

No. That would be a fool’s errand. We would have to compete with private institutions, like Harvard which has about 5 000 undergraduates and a US$50bn endowment, and Caltech with its 950 undergraduates and $5bn endowment. We would have to sacrifice a lot to buy research stars and still it wouldn’t work.

I want us to be as good as we possibly can be but not to look good on the tables while paying a terrible price. I still think some data on Australia’s performance on the world stage is important, but I don’t want it to eclipse everything else we do, and I’m optimistic that increasingly it won’t.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life, UNSW Sydney


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