Few people like university rankings. We’re not a football league.

But if you can get past the distaste to examine the data some interesting information emerges.

The numbers show Australian universities have been performing well. I think one can argue that we punch above our weight, but beyond that Australian universities are models of efficiency. Many people think of the olden days and see ivory towers, tenured staff, a few elite students, and long holidays. Let’s look at the data today.

First, let’s consider – does the QS ranking pass the common-sense test, Well, the top five institutions are: MIT, Oxford, Stanford, Cambridge and Harvard. Irrespective of what you think of the validity of university rankings, seeing those names probably reassures you a little.

The methodology aims to measure several things: reputation, international attractiveness, citations to research work and student/staff ratios. Scores out of 100 are given for each category, weighted, and totalled to make the ranking.

I don’t want to refer to individual universities. So, I averaged the scores in each category for those top five universities. For academic reputation tthey averaged 100. No surprise there. The score for reputation among employers was the same. For international staff 97 and international students 85. For research citations 98, and the score for the student/staff ratio was 100.

In summary, the top 5 universities in the world scored 100, 100, 97, 85, 98 and 100.

Now let’s look at the top 5 Australian universities. Our top university was 27th in the world and our fifth 47th. So, we’re a bit further down the tree. Let’s see why.

Our top five’s average scores in the same order as above were 94, 89, 99, 100, 91, and 25.

We’re a little behind on reputation, we’re strong on internationalisation, and on research citations. But what’s that 25?

Oh, that’s our student/staff ratio score.

It’s not the actual student/staff ratio – that’s about 15 to one, but it is the score we get out of 100. The top five universities in Australia, unlike the top five in the world, are teaching a lot of students with relatively few staff. They are efficient.

I’m thinking you have two questions.

Is it just our research-intensive universities that have these high student/staff ratios? The answer is no. I averaged the other universities and they scored even less. Basically, all public universities in Australia have large student populations with relatively few staff.

You might also be thinking, that the student experience suffers because of those ratios.

That’s where it gets interesting and where I need to consult the professionals, Andrew Norton’s and Ittima Cherastidtham’s Mapping Australian Higher Education 2018 report.  Over the last two decades as our universities expanded and took advantage of “economies of scale,” remarkably, student satisfaction steadily increased!

And there’s not much variation across the sector. The COVID year was complicated by local lockdowns but in previous years the highest undergraduate satisfaction at a public university was about 85 per cent and the lowest around 75 per cent. Student satisfaction varies less across the sector than research, where our most research-active institution spends about $500M a year, with the other end spending around $5M.

Australia has about 40 universities. The amount of research varies and relies heavily on fixed term research-only staff who don’t make a dominant contribution to teaching. All Australian universities teach a large number of students very efficiently with a relatively small number of continuing teaching and research, or continuing, fixed term or casual teaching focussed staff. Over time student numbers have grown but via adopting new approaches, including the clever use of technology, the quality of education as perceived by students, and I would say by graduate destinations, has been maintained and even improved.

When you look at the QS ranking and the top 50 universities, the Australian strategy is rare but we are not unique. Our top five Australian universities are different from most of the other universities in the top 50, which tend to have fewer students per staff member, but there are two universities in the top 50 like us: Berkeley and UCLA, two large public universities in California – a state with a population of about 40 million. These two Californian powerhouses rank 32 and 40. Like Australian institutions they have high scores for most things but for student/staff ratios, they have weaker scores of 23 and 43.

There are many people on both sides of politics who recognise how effective and efficient our universities are, and also many across society who care deeply about the student experience, good teaching, and about the research we do to try to solve problems. As we emerge from the COVID era into a new global world order, we all need to work together and strive to preserve our highly efficient university sector.

And in the meantime, I’m going to reflect on whether we could have come to the same conclusions without relying on those pesky rankings. I’m sure we could but somehow having the external global data does make the case very powerfully and hopefully the numbers will help counter negative perceptions and galvanise support.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life



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