Last month Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt warned that ambition in global rankings, which favour research in the sciences, were distorting universities’ choices at the expense of teaching and humanities.
The most influential rankings emphasise different criteria. The oldest, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, is based on citations and awards, while the Times Higher Education and QS rankings also consider reputation and student-staff ratios.
Professor Fisk said rankings were not perfect and were rightly subject to criticism, “often from institutions not doing so well. But they are the best surrogate measure of global standing that we have, and they are here to stay, whether we like them or loathe them.”
The ARTU “smooths over what are the more unique points of variance,” Professor Fisk said.
However, Professor Schmidt said an aggregate ranking did not fix the problem. “If you take the average of an orange, a banana, and an apple, what do you get?’ he said. “That’s what you’re doing. You get a number, but I find it has no particular extra use.
“It’s better, from my perspective, to understand the constituent parts on those rankings, and say, ‘am I doing well, or am I doing poorly, on things I actually care about?’ It’s not one size fits all, we need to understand people go off to university for all sorts of different circumstances.”
ARTU puts Stanford as the world’s premier university. While it does not top any of the individual rankings, it comes second in each of them, which gives it an aggregate score of six, above Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Oxford.
The ANU is the second-placed university in Australia for 2020 in the ARTU, followed by the University of Queensland, University of Sydney, and UNSW. On a count of top 200 universities per country, Australia was fourth, with 13. On a per-capita basis it was fifth.
Andrew Norton, professor in the practice of higher education at ANU, said the aggregate rankings was an appealing idea. “Each [ranking] is made up of slightly different things which means they exclude things that the others include,” he said.
“And one of the criticisms is that universities pursue whatever they measure, rather than pursue a broader measure. This might soften the edges a bit of a system that can encourage unis to not focus on everything they should focus on.”
Professor Fisk said rankings were a lagging indicator, so the impact of COVID-19 would not be felt for a few years. For Australia, research funding – whether from the government or overseas students – was key to maintaining a strong reputation.
“[The COVID impact] will begin to creep in, in 2022, and will run out for four or five years,” he said. “The international students have been in many ways one of the major keys to our success, but they’ve really exposed our Achilles heel.”
UNSW’s aggregate rankings of top universities (ARTU)
Top 5 Australian universities
University of Melbourne (29th), Australian National University (44th), University of Queensland (45th), University of Sydney (47th), UNSW (52nd)
Top world universities
1: Stanford; 2: Harvard; 3: MIT; 4: Oxford; 5: Cambridge
Countries by top 200
US (56 unis in top 200); UK (29); Germany (14); Australia (13); Netherlands (11).
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Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald