Times Higher Education (THE) is releasing its 2024 edition of the World Universities Rankings edition with its long anticipated methodological changes. The results for Australian universities are mixed, in part influenced by these changes, but there is also the continued rise of Asia universities.
Let us first focus on these methodological changes and then focus on the implications of these for Australian universities in the broader context of global rankings.
The old methodology
THE ranking retains its five-pillar structure, and the most significant change is in the Citations pillar, which drew considerable criticism for many years over its reliance on a single measure (field weight citation impact – FWCI). This measure meant that an institution did not have to have a strong culture of research endeavours to do well in THE. These institutions simply needed to have a select group of researchers to derive large amounts of success, as long as those researchers remained at the given institution and continue to produce (or co-author) papers which attract citations at rates far above everyone else on a given discipline. This was how institutions such as Bond, Canberra and ACU in previous years’ rankings performed very well, as they had a select group of researchers who attracted lots of citations.
Additional citation measures
The citation pillar remains weighted at 30 per cent for the overall ranking, but the score for the FWCI indicator was reduced in weight to allow for the introduction of three indicators, equally weighted at five per cent each. The three new measures are: Research strength, which looks at whether any scholarly output is in the 75th percentile of FWCI; Research excellence, which looks whether the output fall in the top 10 per cent worldwide; and finally, Research influence is about whether the scholarly output is recognised as being among the most influential in the world.
The introduction of these measures is welcome as it recognizes institutions which are focusing on research quality (not just volume) and in a wider range of disciplines – and not necessarily the traditional science disciplines. It means that institutions which rely on a small team of researchers have lost ground because of these changes and are likely to continue to weaken further in coming years.
Strengthened industry pillar
The other significant change is in the Industry pillar. For years, it was also based on a single indicator (industry income per academic) and is now complemented by patents per academic staff. Overall, the industry pillar has increased in weighting from 2.5 per cent to 4.0. Most Australian universities improved their year-on-year score, reflecting the increased maturity of our universities in research translation and those that are actively pursuing or following a path of research commercialization. This improved performance of our universities should please the federal government. We also see that the Australian universities which improved considerably are more those institutions focused on applied sciences, technology, and engineering driven institutions.
The final change applies to the reputation survey. THE is making use of data from UNESCO to apply weighting, allowing for a fair representation of what is occurring in higher education globally. As a result, some Australian universities are doing better than others, as the previous method favoured research intensive and resource-rich institutions. I believe this adjustment is better aligned with what we observe in other reputation surveys. Furthermore, this adjustment will also benefits institutions with a long tradition but were not seen as research heavy.
THE has also introduced another measure (studying abroad) but it is not counted for the overall score. Australian universities are not likely to be strong performers as they lack the volume of student movement as seen in other countries.
An okay year
We can say that 2023 has been an okay year for Australian universities. We boasted that our universities did well when the QS WUR results were announced in June, which was partly a reflection of the methodological changes introduced by QS. Whilst Australian universities avoided another decrease in performance after three years of weakening scores in the academic reputation survey, we continued to see a further decrease in scores in the employer reputation survey. Over the past ten years, Australian universities have declined in performance in the employer reputation, in part influenced by the rise of Asian universities, but it is also influenced by many employers not viewing the preparedness of Australian graduates as well as employers view graduates from leading countries in Asia.
There was no excitement among Australian universities when the results of the Academic Ranking World Universities (ARWU) came out in August. Of the 24 Australian ranked in the top 500, 19 moved down in standing and five moved up, but all moved down in overall score. What we are seeing is that universities from middle income economies and upper middle-income economies, where the strongest level of investment in HE is occurring, are rapidly improving and stepping ahead of universities in high-income economies.
Now that the results from THE are out, it confirms that there is a weakening trend for Australian universities. To reverse this declining trend, our universities need to improve their financial viability, but also improve the student experience, manage staff workloads, and improve supporting systems, as these are leading factors which resonate externally and drive reputation scores.
On the research front, our universities will benefit considerably if all bolster their international collaboration and continue to focus on publishing scholarly outputs in the top quartile.
Angel Calderon – Director, Strategic Insights at RMIT University