Much is made of the deficiencies of the various university ranking systems. Whether it be allocating a third of points for Nobels awarded up to a century ago, assessing teaching solely on staff-student ratio, or sorting over a thousand institutions reputationally on how often they feature in someone’s top 15, each has its flaws. Like democracy there is no ready alternative, but we can learn from other sectors.

Stock exchanges smooth variation through whole market barometers like the All Ords, while investors use a basket of currencies to diversify against volatility. Tennis, golf, rugby, and cricket have each an established international system that collates performance over a range of individual events. So why not academia?

In response, we launch the 2021 version of the Aggregate Ranking of Top Universities (ARTU), which meta-ranks annual performance in the three chief systems: Times Higher Education (THE), Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS).

Another ARTU strength is that it delivers what it says on the tin. A university ranked 100th will have 99 universities ahead of it, one ranked 250th, 249 etc. This because it uses aggregate instead of the mean which wrongly assumes non-skewed distribution. To illustrate this, in 2021 Australian universities in the top 100 move up an average nine places in ARTU, and 26 slots for those in the 101-200 band; indeed, only two of the top 400 globally have a better average than aggregate rank.

There is now a decade’s data in ARTU, its comparative graphics and menus highlighting who’s who among the movers and shakers. Australia is third behind the US and UK for universities in the top 100, ahead of much larger countries like China, Germany, Canada, France and Japan. But corrected for population, Australia lies fifth, behind Switzerland, Netherlands, Denmark and Singapore; here smaller research-intensive knowledge economies do well. Long-run analysis points to considerable stability, with the stand-out exception of China, which has doubled its institutions in the top 200 (to ten), and Australia, up 5 to 13. Contrast this with the US dropping from 63 to 54.

A look at individual institutions confirms this rise of Asia Pacific universities. Of the five moving up more than 20 places in the top 100, the first two are from China (Tsinghua & Peking universities), followed by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and then two from Australia (Monash U & UNSW). Four institutions leapfrogged more than 100 places over the last decade to crack the top 100, again all from China (Zhejiang, Shanghai Jiao Tong, USTC, and Fudan). Shortening the time period to include newer entrants, there are two Australian universities among the ten biggest risers since 2014, UTS up 102 places and Curtin up 84, the rest again all from East Asia.

Given recent kerfuffles in Perth and Adelaide around university mergers, a French connection may be instructive. Paris-Saclay University is the bullet performer in ARTU this year, climbing 78 places from 141st to 68th. In only 2019, it arose from the combination of University of Paris-Sud (rank 153) with four grande écoles including CentraleSupélec (346th) and ENS Paris-Saclay (418th).

Marked disparities in the chief ranking systems can now be tackled via a systematic meta-analytical approach to track performance. ARTU offers a single number scoreboard for comparing the world’s top universities as well as an academic Big Mac Index for international comparisons.

Nicholas Fisk is Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research & Enterprise), UNSW Sydney

Daniel Owens is Executive Director, Division of Research & Enterprise, UNSW Sydney


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