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Melbourne University regarded top in country, but reputation isn’t everything

Melbourne University is Australia’s most highly regarded tertiary institution among academics, according to a global survey…

Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, Australia’s most highly-regarded tertiary institution. Flickr/Julie Smith David

Melbourne University is Australia’s most highly regarded tertiary institution among academics, according to a global survey that ranks universities by reputation.

Melbourne came 43rd in the Times Higher Education 2012 World Reputation Rankings, up two places from last year, followed in next place by the Australian National University, and the University of Sydney at 50.

Harvard University once again topped the poll, which is in its second year. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of seven US universities in the top 10, came second, followed by Cambridge University.

The reputation-based rankings complement the Times' World University rankings, and are based on a survey of academic opinion of more than 17,500 respondents from 137 countries.

Times Higher Education Rankings editor Phil Baty said that Australian universities had suffered from an “image problem,” but that their reputation was beginning to improve.

“All four representatives in the top 100 have risen up the table. This is clear evidence that Australia’s universities are rising in stature internationally, while competitors in the US and UK are seeing their global brands suffer,” he said.

“I’ve argued in the past that Australia may have an image problem … that the collective emphasis on ‘Brand Australia’ had perhaps pulled down the very best research-driven universities in terms of perception of prestige. This is clearly improving.”

Simon Marginson, a Professor of Higher Education at University of Melbourne, agreed some Australian universities had suffered because they did not promote their research strengths when advertising to the international student market.

“We market ourselves to international students on a much bigger scale than anywhere else in the world,” Professor Marginson said. “That’s our special thing. And the projection that people are getting from that marketing is that we have these good universities that perform adequately, it’s a good place to come study, the lifestyle is good, the climate is good, it’s safe.

“Our best universities have excellent research, in clinical medicine for example, agriculture, ecology, applied mathematics, philosophy at ANU - in these areas we’re right in the top drawer and we punch way above our weight. But we don’t talk about that in our marketing.”

Professor Marginson said the poll was interesting but not an indicator of “real quality in teaching”. “Most academics when they answer these forms don’t know much about any institution apart from the one they work in, the one where they did their PhD and a couple of others. I don’t think they know what’s happening at the other end of their country.

“It’s not a particularly good indicator of real quality, but what it does tell you is standing - that’s quite important because bright staff are more likely to want to teach there and bright staff are more likely to want to go there.”

Professor Stephen Garton, the University of Sydney’s Provost and acting Vice-Chancellor, said the improvement by Sydney, which last year was ranked into the 51-60 band (universities ranked outside the top 50 were put in fields of 10), was “an extremely encouraging result which underlines Sydney’s growing international reputation. I congratulate the whole University community for their efforts in bringing about this recognition”.

ANU was placed in the top 51-60 on the reputation table last year. The University of Queensland made the top 71-80 universities, up from the 81-90 band last year.

The University of Queensland Vice-Chancellor Professor Debbie Terry said: “It reflects the hard work undertaken by our university community in learning, scholarship and contributions to society, and indicates broad recognition that The University of Queensland brand continues to be an asset to its graduates and current and future students.”

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5 Comments sorted by

  1. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    Sometimes I find it kind of comical how most of Australia's major universities each seems to have their own billboards and advertising that each say something to the effect of "We are Australia's #1 Ranked University!*" (* subject to our own particular way of setting up the metric that we've explained in the fine print.)

    1. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to Luke Weston

      Amen. I was at the ASCILITE conference last December and I think I heard about 7 different universities (some extremely minor) claim that they were "Australia's leading university for Distance Education". They were all using different metrics. Plus some of them were just making shit up.

  2. Simon Batterbury

    Associate Professor at University of Melbourne

    I agree that the use of rankings by univerisites is sometimes rather unfortunate. We sieze on these things for 'marketing' when we do well, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Only the universiites outside the top 10 have to do this so vigorously.

    This reputational ranking has some suspicious elements. Older data is used, that the Times HE already had in hand. Kris Olds (UW-Madison) feels the release could have been much earlier, but was timed to correspond with the London conference…

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  3. Mark Duffett

    logged in via Facebook

    Having some spent some time in several, my impression is that the whole notion of university rankings is a bit of a crock. The department or school is far more important as a unit of institutional excellence than the university.

  4. Mark Sindone

    Self Storage Franchisee at Archive Storage

    Yes, I agree that it isn't just about reputation when it comes to choosing an ideal university to study at. The credibility of an institution is based on some other factors as well like its quality of the curriculum and academic staff too to name a few. Students also take into consideration other details like location of the school, tuition fees, courses offered and accommodation which is the most essential of all those mentioned. An example is they wouldn't want to enter a school where they have to get a rented house elsewhere and shift places ever so often because there is no hostel facilities. That would require more costs for constant moving and storage too if required.