Middle-ranked Australian unis improve performance

As we head towards the end of the year, we feel fatigued. Over the past twelve months, we have had plenty of discussions on the higher education review, industrial relations matters, and the full return of international students on campus, among many other things that have kept us alive.

There is also fatigue as global university rankings are released regularly.

It is not uncommon to hear colleagues say they are confused about what differentiates one ranking schema from the other, or even distinguishing what is a world, regional, or specialized ranking.

In this commentary, I focus on the performance of Australian universities in Times Higher Education Ranking by Subject, including comparisons against key country competitors. I also discuss some methodological nuances which readers might find useful.

The rankings season goes over a longer period than the footy or rugby seasons. It was not long ago that Times Higher Education (THE) released its World University Rankings (WUR). Additionally, last week THE released its 2024 edition of 11 subject rankings, covering 1886 institutions across 108 countries.

THE Subject Rankings have not received much coverage because in previous years, these were published one at a time over several weeks, and therefore had limited reach. But also, last week ShanghaiRanking released another mammoth edition of its Global Rankings of Academic Subjects (GRAS). A few universities both in Australia and globally have already issued their customary media releases highlighting their achievements.

THE Subject Rankings

As part of its suite of global rankings, THE has been publishing subject rankings annually since at least 2016. THE Subject Rankings draw from the same 18 metrics across five pillars which inform its WUR, however the methodology is adjusted to allow for variations across subjects.

Unsurprisingly, in the subject areas where there is a stronger research emphasis, the citation measures weigh more. For example, in Physical Sciences the research quality pillar (which includes citations and three other research related measures) has a weight of 35.2 per cent compared to 15.0 per cent for Arts & Humanities. In turn, the two reputation measures (both teaching and research) based on a global survey of academics have a weight of 55.3 per cent in Arts & Humanities compared to 37.2 per cent for Physical Sciences. There are also several other differences to metric weights across subjects.

It feels odd that the measure of patents applies across all 11 subject areas but the measure of doctorate per bachelor completions is not applied for three subject areas (Business & Economics, Education and Law). I would have thought that if we would like to see improved governance and institutional alignment against progress in addressing the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda, the doctorate per bachelor metric would be essential across all subject areas.

It is also worth recalling that THE adopted a new methodology for this year’s WUR. This new methodology is also used across the subject rankings (see Future Campus, 27 September 2023). THE introduced five new metrics, but only four are used in the calculation for this year’s ranking. The measure of outbound exchange students was not used. This is a measure that is likely to highlight economic inequalities across institutions and national systems. To make it a fairer measure, there are other aspects of internationalization which could be included.

THE has fewer subject rankings compared to QS (54) and GRAS (55). Although THE publishes more detailed subject offerings, institutions are only informed on standing for 11 subject areas. Over the years, I have argued that subject rankings are useful tools for decision makers to gauge perceptions of standing of their program offerings and for gaining and understanding of research strengths across disciplines.

Across the main ranking schemas, THE is the one which requires the greatest number of data points from institutions for the WUR. On an annual basis, institutions provide information on number of students and staff, institutional income, and research income at the institutional level and at subject level. In contrast, QS only asks institutions to provide student and staff numbers at the institutional level. In turn, ShanghaiRanking does not ask institutions to provide any data at all.

Global context

Australia is seventh globally in the number of subject instances listed: 344 times compared to Japan and Italy, with 360 and 352 listings. Overall, 37 Australian universities have a published ranking for at least one subject. The United States has the highest number of listings (1447 times) across 169 institutions followed by the United Kingdom with 793 listings across 104 institutions. China is third with 499 listings across 86 institutions, followed by Spain with 450 listing across 50 institutions.

On the ratio of subject listings per institution, Australia (9.3) outperforms the above countries and is the fourth top performer (i.e., countries with 20 or more listings), slightly behind Canada and South Africa (both with 9.4 listings per institution). Singapore has a ratio of 10.0 listings per institution.

Australia has a lower proportion of subjects ranked in the top 50 (7 per cent) compared to the United States (16 per cent), Canada and Germany (both at 10 percent) and the United Kingdom (9 per cent). But Australia (20 per cent) is ahead of the United Kingdom (18 per cent) and Canada (17 per cent) for the proportion of subjects ranked in the top 100 (i.e., 1 to 100).

Top performers

There is no surprise in saying that Go8 institutions are Australia’s best performers. Overall, there are 23 instances of Australian universities ranked in the top 50. Melbourne has the most listings with seven, followed by Sydney with five.

Among the top 100 (i.e., 1 to 100), there are 11 institutions for a total of 45 listings. These institutions include all Go8 institutions as well as UTS, Macquarie and Deakin.

The number of Australian universities increases to 22 once we consider the listings with subjects ranked in the top 200 (i.e., 101 to 200). Most notably, we see that Curtin, Griffith, La Trobe, RMIT, Newcastle, and Wollongong have at least five subjects each listed among the top 200.

Whilst the United States and the United Kingdom outperform Australia in the top 50 and top 100, Australia stands ahead of both countries when it comes to the overall proportion of subjects ranked in the top 200. A total of 72 per cent of Australian university subjects are ranked in the top 200 compared to the United States (55 per cent) and the United Kingdom (56 per cent).

Climbing at a slower pace

Although Australian universities continue to perform well in global rankings, this improvement is happening at a slower pace and is not across all institutions. We are seeing the progressive improvement of middle-income economies, particularly those from Asia, which over the next ten years are likely to be in a stronger position than now. In terms of reputational performance, some institutions have not made progress over recent years.  Gains made in measures of research impact may be short lived if we do not invest more on building our research workforce, bolstering efforts for increased publications in top quality journals, and increasing international collaboration. In order to achieve these goals our universities need to be savvy with where investments are made and be clear in how long it will take for realizing the benefits, particularly at times of economic uncertainty and geopolitical turbulence.

Next week, I will delve into the ShanghaiRanking’s Global Ranking of Academic Subjects and provide a comparison how Australian universities stack up against QS and THE subject rankings.

Total number of times and band distribution for selected countries in 2024 Times Higher Education Subject Rankings
CountryNumber of listingsNumber of institutionsTop 50Top 100Top 200Top 300Top 400Top 500 
United Kingdom7931049.1%9.2%36.3%13.6%13.6%18.2% 
United States144716915.9%9.2%29.6%11.7%10.7%21.6% 

Angel Calderon is Director, Strategic Insights at RMIT University.



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