Australia’s top universities are losing ground as Asian universities are on the rise, according to the latest university rankings out today.
The results from the Times Higher Education (THE) world university rankings has seen seven Australian universities in the top 300 going backwards from last year. Only two universities in the top 100 improved their position with the University of Queensland going up two spots (to 63) and Monash by eight (to 91).
University of Melbourne is still ranked the top institution amongst Australian universities but has slipped from 28th to 34th. While runner up, the Australian National University has gone from 37th to 48th.
Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education rankings, said the latest results for Australia will be “particularly alarming given that dramatic university cuts of A$2.3 billion are yet to be fully felt. And the victory last month of conservative Tony Abbott as prime minister does not suggest that research funding will be high on the national agenda.”
Meanwhile, East Asian universities are on the rise. The National University of Singapore (NUS) for example has overtaken Australia’s top ranked university, the University of Melbourne, going from 29th to 26th spot. Melbourne is now behind two other universities from the Asia-pacific region.
Chief executive of Universities Australia Belinda Robinson said while the results of the rankings should be treated with caution, it was “a warning sign” about the competitiveness of Australian higher education internationally.
“Given the massification of on-line learning, the expansion of international education by other OECD nations, and the enormous investment being made in universities by countries in our region, it is becoming an incredibly competitive environment and simply put, Australia has to stay on top of that, or risk being left behind,” she said.
If we discount the rise of Asia, Ms Robinson said, it “would be to our detriment.”
“[International education] is the fourth largest export industry in Australia… It continues to surprise me that, as a country, we are not more alive to the important role that international education plays in Australia and a bit more sensitive to the fact that the rest of the world isn’t standing still.”
Despite Asia’s strong performance, American universities continue to dominate the rankings, with California Institute of Technology getting the top spot overall. But Europe has faltered with top universities in Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Russia, Belgium, Ireland and Austria all slipping down the ladder.
But Leo Goedegebuure, director of the LH Martin Institute, said the methodology of the rankings was flawed and Australia’s dip this year needed to be taken with a grain of salt.
Australian higher education is “complex but it also doesn’t change overnight. It takes years for us to graduate students, it takes years to build research projects and produce research outcomes. So I find it weird that you find such big swings between years,” said Professor Goedegebuure.
“The real issue is that we’re comparing apples and oranges in these rankings. An Australian university for example is not like a Dutch university… Australian universities are very different, they are large, they are the result of merging a [college] and university sector, and they are far more diverse. Dutch universities, on the contrary, are small traditional research universities in a binary system and because of that come out better as a system.”
The rankings may not tell us much, but they are important for international students and their sponsoring countries, who used them as a way of choosing their university, Goedegebuure said. “So if Australia keeps dropping and other countries keep rising that provides the wrong signal to the world. And we can’t ignore that.”
Professor Goedegebuure said there should be better information for students to choose their universities. “If you buy a house, you get all sorts of reports about the structural condition, about the suburb. Going to university is not a cheap choice either, it’s a serious investment, and you need some serious information to inform your choice.” Institutional rankings did not give students the full picture, he said.
The THE rankings are based on a range of measures including research citations, research income, the degree to which academics collaborate internationally, staff-to-student ratios and academic reputation surveys.