Foreign riches ‘bankrolled binge’ on highly cited researchers

Rankings skew Australia’s top universities as they parlay profits from foreign students to snap up the world’s most talked about researchers

August 15, 2020
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Australia has more than doubled its share of the world’s research superstars since its richest universities opened the floodgates to international students in 2014.

report by University of Sydney sociologist Salvatore Babones links Australia’s snowballing Chinese enrolments with its increasing proportion of highly cited researchers (HCRs) and its rapid rise up the international league tables – particularly the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).

The report, to be published on 15 August, tracks Australia’s share of HCRs since international university rankings emerged in 2003. HCRs, who are identified each year by analytics company Clarivate, produce multiple articles that rank among the most cited 1 per cent of papers in their fields.

Australia’s share of HCRs rose modestly over the decade to 2014, from 1.71 to 2.02 per cent. But over the following five years, it soared to 4.36 per cent.

This coincides with a period of rampant recruitment of international students, particularly from China, by research-intensive universities on Australia’s eastern seaboard.

Dr Babones’ report estimates that Chinese enrolments have reached 26 per cent of student numbers at Australia’s top-ranked Group of Eight (Go8) universities. The proceeds from their fees have bankrolled rankings success, which in turn attracts more foreign students, particularly from China.

The rankings rise owes much to the burgeoning number of HCRs – a metric that constitutes 20 per cent of universities’ ARWU scores – with circumstantial evidence suggesting many of them were recruited from overseas.

The coronavirus-induced suspension of international student flows has now plunged universities into financial crisis “as they struggle to maintain their outsized research ambitions”, the report says.

Dr Babones said there was nothing wrong with cashed-up universities hiring HCRs. “The problem is going out to get the money just so you can hire HCRs. It’s driving this irresponsible recruitment of Chinese students.”

This shifts universities’ priorities, Dr Babones claims, from cultivating their homegrown research capability to hiring superstars – specifically in the 21 fields in which HCRs are tallied, which exclude the humanities, arts and law. Dr Babones’ analysis found that of 162 HCRs in Go8 universities, 158 were in the sciences and just four in the social sciences.

“The research funding coming in from Chinese students is not going to academics to improve their research,” he said. “It’s going towards buying researchers to improve the universities’ rankings. It’s not that the world is benefiting because there’s more research being done. It’s simply reshuffling the deck in favour of Australia.”

The report says that if Australia’s most fancied universities can only finance their rankings ambitions by selling more than one-quarter of their university places to Chinese students, “it is perhaps time for them to reconsider those ambitions”. University executives’ bonuses should be made public and never tied to international rankings, it says.

Details of “unadvertised, non-competitive ‘strategic hires’ of specifically targeted academics” should also be made public, it adds.

The report also says Chinese student numbers should be reset at levels “consistent with universities’ educational missions”. It recommends limiting students from individual overseas countries to 5 per cent of overall numbers, with foreigners constituting up to 15 per cent of enrolments in any institution and 20 per cent in any course.

While such benchmarks are low by Australian standards, Dr Babones said only a handful of universities in North America would exceed them.

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