In university management meetings around the world in the last 20 years people have told each other that;  “rankings aren’t really what is important … at least not to us. Our focus is quality student experience and excellent research despite what rankings say. But we understand they are important to prospective students, so unfortunately we have to pay attention to them … .”

In reality, universities keenly focus on rankings. They are often in institutional KPIs, there are teams dedicated to monitoring and improving them and they are catnip for higher education media (irony noted).

Over and above a strong drawcard for lucrative international student markets, they are also a factor in attracting high profile researchers. Regardless of shiny lab equipment or dozens of PhD students on offer, it’s a rare researcher who would choose University of Sharjah over a position with Harvard U.

Improved research drives better rankings which, in turn, attracts better research and more students.

It’s a virtuous cycle and universities care a great deal about rankings.

Which is why a new product from consultants KPMG will appeal: calculating the payoff in rankings through increased international student fees from an increased investment

Before considering this proposition, a short primer on the three major rankings:

* Academic World Ranking of Universities (ARWU), formerly Shanghai Jiao Tong. This is the first and – despite what some universities may outwardly say – the most prestigious ranking in the sector, and therefore the most attractive to prospective academics. ARWU is built entirely on quantitative data resulting from research performance.

* The Times Higher Education Rankings (THE). Commendably built to measure both teaching and research, 33 per cent of a university’s final score relies on results of a reputation survey of academics. – it is credibly argued that academics rate universities based on perceived reputation generated by the ARWU ranking.

* Quacquarelli Symonds World Rankings (QS) were born in a partnership with THE but has morphed to a methodology based 50 per cent on reputation-based surveys of academics and employers. QS is the most broadly marketed and include a student enquiry generation business. It currently attracts the most attention from prospective students.

KPMG’s product mentions only THE and QS as a means of driving tuition revenue. But it simplifies the “black box” proposition. There are likely unintended consequences or trade-offs between the three rankings of a revenue-driven approach versus a strategic purpose-driven approach. For example:

* universities with a good staff to student ratio will add points in QS and THE

* the best way to invest in more staff is to add early and mid-career academics to stretch the salary dollar

* however, these academics are less likely to publish in quality journals, be highly cited or receive major research awards

* which could mean investing in QS and THE rankings could result in a decline in ARWU scores.

Adding international students is another way to improve rankings in QS or THE. But this may result in declining staff student ratios and the result will be a wash.

Of course, universities can simultaneously invest in more staff – international staff score higher – but if they do not research in quality journals … see above.

Some universities carefully curate and manage the lists of academics and employers and send encouraging emails designed to elicit positive survey responses. This annual undertaking is usually managed by an internal team – the opportunity cost of which could be recruiting high performing researchers.

Rather than looking through a revenue growth lens, what if we made these decisions strategically?

High performing researchers provide a greater benefit than simply a higher ranking. They could be working on a cure for disease, improving world food security or writing the next great novel. They impact the world around them. They bring in grants, attract quality students and other researchers. (For example, the University of Texas  M D Anderson Cancer Centre ranks 68th in the ARWU).

International staff provide a richer learning environment, with myriad perspectives and experiences to share with colleagues and students alike. The National University of Singapore ranks 11th on QS.

Investing in good teaching academics improves graduate outcomes and a reputation for a quality student experience. Consider, Humboldt University of Berlin, 74th on THE.

KPMG’s new product is most likely to assist universities in emerging higher education systems than those which already maturely manage their performance in the big three rankings.

As institutions of higher education, once we decide what we stand for, what we believe in, what our purpose is, then our choices about where to invest become clear. Rankings success will naturally follow.

Kylie Colvin

Director of Strategy, Development and Delivery

University of Nottingham, Malaysia


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education