Australia ‘has passed peak rankings’

Australian universities’ standing in global league tables may have plateaued

March 28, 2021
Podium of university ranking winners
Source: iStock

The pandemic has prompted hand-wringing about the future of Australian universities, with fears that billions of dollars in lost international education revenue will undermine the research performance that propelled many of them into the top 100 of world university rankings.

But University of Melbourne policy analyst Gwilym Croucher said the coronavirus crisis has undercut not only the means for the country’s outsized rankings performance, but also the motivation.

“Australian universities have paid very close attention to rankings, in a way that similar universities in different countries perhaps have not,” he said. “That is potentially going to change. Maybe Australia will be treating rankings more like other places.”

Writing in The Conversation, Dr Croucher highlights the role of rankings in a “virtuous circle” that attracted fee-paying international students, who in turn financed universities to undertake research that pushed them higher up the rankings. But the pandemic may have upended the model. “If international students go elsewhere, the attractiveness of pursuing a high ranking diminishes.”

He told Times Higher Education that Australia had seen a “change in narrative” around rankings, citing recent criticisms by current and former vice-chancellors. In February, retired Australian Catholic University boss Greg Craven complained that universities had allowed themselves to become embroiled in an “arms war” on rankings.

“Intellectualism is not meant to be the Olympic Games where you count the gold medals rather than the level of aerobic fitness of your population,” Professor Craven told the ABC.

In November, Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt bemoaned the league tables’ “distortionary” effects, and said he was prepared to pay a “short-term price in the rankings” by pursuing research in the national interest.

“Every time I spend a dollar on Indigenous research, I go backwards [in the rankings],” Professor Schmidt told a forum. “Every time I [publish] something [outside] a highly prestigious journal, I go backwards.”

In February, federal education minister Alan Tudge criticised “the focus on international rankings [that] has led to a relentless drive for international students to fund the larger research volumes that are required to drive up the rankings”.

This statement contrasted with government policy in 2014, when then treasurer Joe Hockey outlined an aspiration for Australia to have “at least one university in the top 20 in the world, and more in the top 100”.

Dr Croucher said Australians had tended to take a “cart before the horse” approach with rankings, “assuming that somehow they were important in and of themselves, as opposed to what they indicate. A lot of [the interest] initially was [because] it was a way to demonstrate excellence, but the enduring popularity [in Australia] was definitely to do with the international market.

“Will universities in Australia still look at rankings? Absolutely. There is always going to be intrinsic interest. It’s about how influential rankings are, and whether and how they’re prioritised.”

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Reader's comments (1)

So no more internationalisation for Australian universities. No more.