This is the third year in which QS Rankings by Subject cover 51 subject areas, compared to 46 in 2017. There are 1,501 institutions from 89 locations included in the twelfth edition of this ranking, which continues to increase in global reach and impact year-on-year. The QS Rankings by Subject continue to show stability, and this augurs well for those institutions which make regular use of these results.

Australia remains fourth globally in terms of instances listed– 739 compared to 732 times last year.  Overall, 37 Australian institutions have a published ranking for at least one subject. However, Australia is lagging with institutions ranked at the top.

Most listings

There are no surprises in saying that Go8 universities are ranked first to eight in the number of total listings, with both Queensland Uni and Sydney Uni having 48 listings each, followed by Melbourne Uni (47).

Outside the Go8, Wollongong Uni and Curtin University have the most listings (31 each), followed by Newcastle Uni (29 listings). RMIT, QUT and Macquarie follow with 28 listings each.

In the top 20 subjects

There are 12 Australian universities which have at least one subject listing in the world’s top 20. ANU is listed 11 times, followed by Melbourne (10) and Sydney (9). The other universities with at least one subject listed are: UNSW, Queensland, Monash, Adelaide, UWA, Curtin, QUT, Deakin and RMIT.

There are 49 instances of Australian universities ranking in the top 20, which represents 6.6 per cent of the total ranked listings. To put these results in perspective, Australia underperforms compared to the United Kingdom and the United States (both at 14.1 per cent) and Canada (7.8 per cent); however, Australia outperforms Germany (2.9 per cent) and China (3.2 per cent).

This year, Monash ranks first globally in Pharmacy, up one place from last year. The Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences is not one of the original faculties of the Clayton-based university, but an outcome of the amalgamations which occurred as part of the Dawkins reforms thirty years ago. The point is that institutions that maintain and nurture areas of specialisation shine in global rankings.

There are several other Australian universities with subject areas that are core to their overall mission and are foundational to their long-standing reputation. These areas are not necessarily driven by market forces or financial viability.

and the top 50

Australian universities are listed 192 times with subjects ranked in the top 50, with Melbourne having the most (38 times), followed by Sydney (28). Overall, 23 Australian are listed with at least one subject area in the top 50.

The performance of Australian universities in the top 50 as a proportion of the number of listings (26 per cent) is comparable to that of the United States (26.1 per cent) and the United Kingdom (26.3 per cent), and is above Canada (24 per cent), Germany (12.7 per cent), and China (13.0 per cent).

Top 100

Australian universities are listed 362 times in the top 100; 49 percent as a proportion of the number of listings. Australia stands above the United States (42.6 per cent) and the United Kingdom (44.6 per cent). It is also considerably above Canada (35.8 per cent), Germany (29.8 per cent), and China (27.9 per cent).

28 universities are listed at least once, with the University of Sydney having 48 listings, followed by Melbourne (47) and Queensland (42). Outside the Go8 universities, UTS, Macquarie, and RMIT have the most listings – at least ten each.

Areas of concern

Even though Australian universities have continued to perform well in the subject rankings, clearly there is the need to manage the views of academics about the perceived quality of Australian higher education. Furthermore, the adverse publicity surrounding issues such as casual pay underpayment and vice-chancellors’ salaries are not instilling public confidence in our universities.

For two consecutive years, the scores of Australian universities in both the QS academic and employer reputation surveys have experienced a small but noticeable decline in performance. Should Australian universities experience a further decrease in performance this year, we are likely to see a loss in overall standing for some of our universities, which is likely to cascade down at subject level. We will know for certain in June when QS will release its 2023 World University Rankings.

Reputation surveys are generally disliked by academics. The reality is that we tend to dislike any type of survey – whether it is about students’ perceptions of the overall quality of teaching, student satisfaction, or university staff views on engagement, institutional leadership and job satisfaction. However, these instruments can point to long term issues or areas of concern which can then be used to guide improvement.

Financial uncertainty

The biggest worry for Australian universities is the financial uncertainty. Government funding is unlikely to increase any time soon, and there is increased competition from overseas institutions and domestic private providers for international students. This is likely to influence institutional investment choices – infrastructure, resourcing and strengthening the workforce. All these factors can bring instability and have lasting impact on the academic workforce.

As rankings reflect past performance, recovering ground lost in standing can take some years. It may be necessary to do more than fixing some patches – usually those solutions only deliver short term gains, which may not ultimately deliver an uplift on subject rankings. Assessing academic workload, staffing arrangements, and student demand and satisfaction are examples of dimensions to consider.

Of course, any strategy that is put in place to recover lost ground in subject rankings depends on factors, such as the length and depth of a decline, whilst maintaining a perspective of what is happening within the national system and peer competitors.

Engineering and technology

Over recent years, the performance of Australian universities in the faculty area of Engineering and Technology have been weakening. Whilst we see that performance in research driven metrics is improving year on year, it is not maintaining pace with emerging Asian universities.

The performance of Australian universities in the reputation surveys is weakening, which reflects years of under investment in the Engineering and Technology subject areas; yet, there is an engineer shortage in Australia, according to Engineers Australia.

More analysis to come 

In a separate piece next week, I will focus on how the Go8, ATN, IRU and RUN universities performed relative to international peers across key subject areas

 Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT


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