Even though we continue to see mixed performance for Australian universities across various ranking schemas, Australian universities stand tall in subject rankings and outperform international peers.
Recently, ShanghaiRanking released its seventh consecutive edition of it expanded subject rankings. The Global Ranking of Academic Subjects (GRAS) contains rankings across 55 subject areas and covers more than 1965 institutions across 104 locations.
This year we see that there are an additional 100 institutions compared to last year. It is clear the production of subject rankings are now major enterprises which are further shaping the global higher education landscape.
For some years I have said ShanghaiRanking’s GRAS is not a ranking designed for international student recruitment. Rather, it is focused on fostering research and institutional collaboration, academic mobility across institutions, and to enter into agreements based on research affinity.
While it has some appeal to students who are considering doctorate education in a particular field or niche area of research, this is a ranking which appeals to academics who are seeking to advance their research career elsewhere. The subject ranking which has greater appeal to students is the QS Rankings by Subject.
As this is a ranking which significantly relies on bibliometric data, there is not much variation which can be expected from year to year.
Number of times listed
The number of Australian universities included in the ranking increased by one from 39 in 2022 to 40 this year with the inclusion of Torrens University (with one listing). Last year, we noted that Southern Cross, Bond, and Charles Darwin were new entrants to the subject ranking.
Overall, there are 894 instances in which Australian universities are listed across subjects compared to 884 last year, or 876 in 2021.
There are 16 Australian universities listed that have 30 or more listings in the subject rankings. This is one more compared to last year. This time, Melbourne has the most listings across 51 subjects, followed by UNSW and Queensland (both at 50). We see that Melbourne increased by three listings, while UNSW went down by two. Go8 institutions have the most listings (between 51 and 40), and are followed by UTS, Deakin, Griffith, QUT, RMIT, Wollongong, Curtin, and Wollongong (between 40 and 30).
The number of subjects ranked in the world’s top 50 decreased by seven, from 144 in 2022 to 137; of these, 41 per cent are in the Engineering field, and 21 per cent in Social Sciences. 25 Australian universities have one or more subject listing, with Melbourne, UNSW, Queensland, Monash, and Sydney having the most (between 13 and 19 listings).
Over the past five years, the proportion of subjects ranked in the world’s top 100 have ranged from a low of 34.1 per cent to a high of 37.0 per cent. In 2023, there are 316 subjects (or 35.3 per cent) ranked in the world top 100; of these, 47 per cent are in Engineering, followed by 36 per cent in Medical Sciences.
We also observe that the cumulative proportion of subjects ranked in the world’s top 200 (i.e., ranked in the cumulative range from 1 to 200) decreased from 64.6 per cent in 2019 to 63.0 per cent in 2023. This means we are seeing more subjects which are ranked in the 301 to 500 range.
Key areas for our university leaders to focus are fostering incentives for increased international co authorship research collaboration, and continuing focus on top quartile publications to strengthen the overall quality of research endeavours for the subject areas which are in the middle bands.
Closer to the top
Whilst there is not an Australian university which tops in any of the subject rankings, there are 13 listings in the world’s top 10 compared to 15 listings last year.
Australia’s top two subject listings is Nursing from Griffith and Monash, both ranked 3rd globally. The other listing are: Hospitality & Tourism Management (4th) from Griffith, Mining & Mineral Engineering (5th) from Monash, Geography (7th) from Melbourne, Nursing (7th) from Sydney, Business Administration (7th) from Monash, Hospitality & Tourism Management (8th) from Queensland, Telecommunication Engineering (10th) from Sydney, Biotechnology (10th) from Queensland, and Transportation Science & Technology (10th) from Sydney.
UNSW continues to have the highest proportion of its subjects listing in the top 50 (38 per cent), followed by Sydney (37.5 per cent), Queensland (30 per cent), and Melbourne (29.4 per cent).
UNSW also has the highest proportion of its listings in the world’s top 100 (i.e., band range from 1-100) at 76.0 per cent. Melbourne is next (72.5 per cent) and is followed by Monash (69.4 per cent).
Outside the research-intensive universities, UTS is =7th (with UWA) in Australia in the proportion of subjects ranked in the top 50 and is 6th in Australia in the proportion of subjects ranked in the top 100.
Another way in which to assess the performance of Australian universities is to compare how they stack up against equivalent institutional alliances elsewhere.
The alliance of the six ATN institutions is compared against the Technical Universities from Germany (TU9). On average, ATN institutions have 30.7 listings compared to 21.6 for TU9 institutions. ATN institutions have a higher proportion of subjects ranked in the top 50 and top 51-100. 8.7 listings per ATN institutions are ranked in the top 100 (i.e., 1 to 100) compared to 4.8 listings per TU9 institutions.
The alliance of the Go8 institutions is compared against the 24 institutions from the United Kingdom’s Russell Group. Although the Russell Group institutions have the greatest volume of subject ranked in the top 50 (213 compared to 97), Go8 institutions have a higher proportion of subjects ranked in the top 50 at 26.1 per cent compared to 23.2 per cent. 26.5 listings per Go8 institutions are ranked in the top 100 (i.e., 1 to 100) compared to 15.9 listings per Russell Group institutions. On average, Go8 institutions have 46.4 listings compared to 38.2 for Russell Group institutions.
|Table 1: Comparison of performance in ShangahiRanking’s Global Ranking of Academic Subjects by university alliance|
|Year established||Member institutions||Ranked||Total listings||% top 50||% top 51-100||Listings per alliance||Top 100 listings per alliance|
|Australian Technology Network (ATN)||1999||6||6||184||10%||18%||30.7||8.7|
|Technical Universities (TU9)||2003||9||8||173||7%||15%||21.6||4.8|
|Group of Eight (Go8)||1999||8||8||371||26%||31%||46.4||26.5|
|Innovative Research Universities (IRU)||2003||7||7||121||7%||6%||17.3||2.3|
The alliance of the seven Innovative Research Universities (IRU) is compared against the University Alliance from the United Kingdom. On average, IRU institutions have 17.3 listings compared to 4.7 for the University Alliance. IRU institutions have a higher proportion of subjects ranked in the top 200 (i.e., 1 to 200). 6.3 listings per IRU institutions are ranked in the top 200 compared to 1.2 listings per University Alliance Institutions.
Engineering remains top field
A key strength for ShanghaiRanking is that it provides comprehensive coverage for the field of engineering with 23 subject listings.
For Australian universities, 35 per cent (317 listings) are in Engineering, followed by the Social Sciences (241 listings or 27 per cent), Natural Sciences (138 or 15 per cent), Medical Sciences (118 or 13 per cent). The lowest number of listings are in the Life Sciences (80 or 9 per cent). This year’s distribution is like what we have seen for the past three years. By comparison, 60 per cent of China’s listings are in Engineering, followed by 14 per cent in Natural Sciences and 11 per cent in Social Sciences. In turn, 27 per cent of the United States listing are in Engineering, followed by 35 per cent in Social Sciences.
|Table 2: Total number of times and band distribution Australian universities listed in ShanghaiRankings’ 2023 Global Rankings of Academic Subjects by faculty|
|Top 100||Top 200||Top 300||Top 400||Top 500|
|Table compiled by AJ Calderon using 2023 data available online and previous years data extracted at the time of release.|
There is often confusion about why an institution is listed in certain fields in which they do not teach or offer coursework degrees. The construct of the academic subjects is based on the fields of publications of an institution as mapped by ShanghaiRanking using Clarivate’s Web of Science.
The methodological construct of ShanghaiRanking is entirely dependent on objective measures. Four of these are drawn from Clarivate’s bibliometric databases:
- The first indicator (Q1) is the number of papers published by an institution which are in journals with Q1 Journal Impact Factor Quartile during the five-year period between 2018 and 2022.
- The second indicator (CNCI) refers to the ratio of citations of papers published to the average citations of papers published in the same category during the period between 2018 and 2022.
- The third indicator refers to the ratio of collaborative publications (with at least two authors from different countries) during the period between 2018 and 2022.
- The fourth indicator refers to the number of papers published in top journals in an academic subject for an institution between 2018 and 2022.
- The last indicator is based on the number of staff of an institution winning a significant award in an academic subject.
Ranking schemas compared
There is also the temptation to compare how Australian universities perform in QS World University Rankings by Subject, or Times Higher Education (THE) Rankings by Subject. It is worth reminding readers that there are significant differences in the construction of these rankings.
QS and THE use data from Elsevier’s Scopus, whilst ShanghaiRanking uses data from Clarivate’s Web of Science. Both QS and THE rely on reputation surveys. THE subject rankings are constructed using 18 metrics, requiring institutional input; whilst QS and ShanghaiRanking are constructed using a limited number of indicators drawn from third party sources.
As table 3 shows, across all subject ranking schemas, Australian universities are strong performers at the top end of subject rankings. In QS, 72 per cent of ranked subjects are in the world’s top 200, in ShanghaiRanking, 50 per cent of ranked subjects are in the world’s top 200 and 47 per cent in THE.
Rankings reflect past performance. What we have seen in recent years is that the performance of Australian universities in reputation surveys is weakening and per capita performance is not improving. There is no increased public investment in higher education or research endeavour, and we are certainly not keeping pace with the growth seen in middle income economies, particularly those from Asia. This lack of investment may prove to be costly in coming years.
|Table 3: Distribution of subject listings by band – major subject rankings|
|Total listings||Top 50||Top 100||Top 200||Top 300||Top 400||Top 500||501+|
|QS World University Rankings by Subject|
|THE World University Rankings by Subject|
|ShanghaiRanking’s Global Ranking of Academic Subjects|
Angel Calderon is Director, Strategic Insights at RMIT University.