Australia has ridden a wave of new research funding, much of it supplied by international students, to register its best performance yet in Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings.
A record 11 Australian universities have claimed places in the top 200 of this year’s rankings, up from nine last year, with Queensland University of Technology and the University of Canberra joining the frontrunners.
The two institutions are among 19 of Australia’s 35 ranked universities that have advanced their standing this year, with UNSW Sydney, Western Sydney University, Queensland’s Bond University and Perth’s Edith Cowan University also logging particularly strong improvements. Just five Australian institutions slipped from last year’s positions, two of them by a single place.
Australia now boasts more top-200 institutions than any nation apart from the US, UK or Germany, and is the third-most improved territory behind China and Hong Kong over the past five years. Canberra has been the standout success story over that period, rising 376 places since 2016 – the single biggest institutional improvement in the world.
Vice-chancellor Deep Saini credited hardworking staff for boosting the influence of his university’s research and teaching. He said Canberra’s score of 99.2 for citations, up from 95 last year, placed it 16th in the world on this measure. “It is evident that our researchers are demonstrating impact and providing solutions to real-world problems,” he said.
UNSW is easily the most improved top-100 university this year, climbing 25 places to 71st. “It reflects our progress across the spectrum of research, education, innovation, equity, thought leadership and global impact,” said vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs.
Australian universities improved their average scores this year in 12 of the 13 metrics that underpin the rankings, registering particularly strong performances in citation impact, research environment and international outlook.
The results have emerged amid increasing concern that Australia’s universities are too reliant on foreign tuition fees to bankroll their research performance and global standing. Newly released data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development confirms Australia as an international education outlier.
According to the OECD’s latest Education at a Glance report, Australia hosts a considerably higher proportion of international students than any jurisdiction except Luxembourg, where the only public university lies within 25 miles of three foreign countries.
And with 86 per cent of its overseas students hailing from Asia, Australia has a higher dependence on a single continent than any other international education destination apart from Slovenia, where almost all of the 3,000-odd foreign students come from elsewhere in Europe.
Australia has the highest concentration of international students in business, administration and law courses (51 per cent) and the second highest concentration in master’s programmes (48 per cent), underlining foreign students’ predominance in lucrative MBAs.
Griffith University rankings expert Tony Sheil said “concerted” foreign student recruitment had furnished top Australian research universities with money for infrastructure and large-scale research. He said their rankings momentum was unlikely to last without “major new sources” of revenue, although industry contracts, philanthropy and the Medical Research Future Fund could fuel further improvements.
Conor King, executive director of the Innovative Research Universities, said Australia’s location and climate helped lure overseas students. “But [they] would not be coming unless they had confidence our universities were among the best in the world,” he said.
Mr King attributed Australia’s rankings success partly to improved research productivity – a trend demonstrated in the recent research assessment exercise, Excellence in Research for Australia, as well as THE’s data.
Australia’s top institution, the University of Melbourne, has retained its equal 32nd world ranking alongside LMU Munich, the German frontrunner. Vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell attributed Melbourne’s strong performance to its focus on teaching and research, along with its “continued focus on better communicating the outcomes of our research”.
Across the Tasman Sea, the University of Auckland has re-entered the global top 200 after a one-year absence. Auckland University of Technology also improved its standing, but New Zealand’s other six universities either stayed still or dropped in the rankings.
“New Zealand’s flagship institutions have performed relatively well in the face of strong international competition, but serious questions still remain regarding investment and funding,” said THE chief knowledge officer Phil Baty.