Australia’s ranking success reflects past glory

Australian universities continue to perform well, in the latest QS rankings despite an underlining weakness in the reputation survey results, which could prove challenging in the next year or two.

The performance of Australian universities in the employer reputation survey has declined over the past ten years, partly due to the rise of Asian universities and quality of their graduates.

The 14th edition of the QS World University Rankings by Subject are more comprehensive in coverage this year, with 1,566 institutions from 91 countries evaluated across 55 subject areas.

Over the past six years, seven subjects were added, and the number of subject listings increased by 31% to 16,410 in 2024.

Let us focus first on the global context, the methodological construct and how Australian universities perform this year compared to previous years. I will discuss areas of concern and opportunities for improvement, considering increased competition and tight financial environment.

Influence on policy

Over the past two decades, global rankings have played a pivotal role in shaping educational policy, institutional decision-making and informing student choices. Despite their influence, there is a growing debate on method, evaluation criteria, geographical representation, and impact on institutional behaviour.

We are surrounded by copious amounts of information which can be used to support decision- making at all levels within our universities. As someone who has worked in institutional management for a long time, I utilise a variety of data sources, including QS subject rankings and student survey data, to provide insights on a range of topics.

One of the criticisms levelled against QS rankings is their heavy reliance on reputational surveys, which can disproportionately benefit older, research intensive and resource-rich institutions.

However, results from QS reputation survey tend to be stable year-on-year. At the subject level, it is not uncommon for the perceived standing of an institution to align with results from student surveys or to be linked to fields of study in demand.

Global context

Australia remains fourth globally in the number of subject instances listed, with 797 compared to 747 last year or 666 in 2019.  Overall, 36 Australian institutions have a published ranking for at least one subject; three fewer compared to last year. Charles Darwin, Notre Dame and Sunshine Coast had a subject listing last year but not this year.

The United States continues to have the highest number of listings (3039) across 217 institutions followed by the United Kingdom with 1569 listings across 106 institutions. China remains third with 882 listings across 101 institutions. Germany is fifth with 774 listing across 60 institutions.

On the ratio of subject listings per institutions, Australia is third globally (22.1) behind New Zealand (23.8) and Hong Kong (22.7). Following Australia are Singapore (20.6), Belgium (20.5) and Canada (20.2). Although the United States and the United Kingdom have the most subject listings and the highest number of ranked institutions, they lag Australia on the ratio of subject listings per institutions: 14.0 and 14.8, respectively.

Universities from the United States top the rankings in 32 subjects, with Harvard and MIT leading in 19 and 11 subjects, respectively. Then, universities from the United Kingdom top the rankings in 16 subjects, with the University of Oxford leading in four. Switzerland leads in four subjects, Netherlands in two and Italy in one.

Australia does not lead the world in any subject, but it has three listings in second place, one in third and two in fourth. Australian universities are listed 17 times with subjects in the top 10. To put it in perspective, Australia and Canada are equal fifth in the number of subject listings in the world’s top 10.  The United States has 244 listings in the top 10 followed by the United Kingdom with 148 listings. For both the United States and the United Kingdom listings in the top 10 constitute 8 per cent of their total entries.

Methodological construct

QS World University Rankings by Subject contain five measures, which vary in weight depending on the subject area:

  • Academic reputation is based on survey data which QS collects annually from academics. It has a weight between 30 and 70 percent.
  • Employer reputation is based on survey data which QS collects annually from employers. It has a weight between 10 and 30 per cent.
  • Citations per paper reflect the research impact and quality of institutions, based on a five-year publication and six-year citation window, based on data from Elsevier. It has a weight between 5 per cent and 30 per cent.
  • H index quantifies a researcher’s scholarly output and influence by tallying their most-cited works and the corresponding citation count based on data from Elsevier. It has a weight between 5 per cent and 30 per cent.
  • International Research Network (IRN) applies to 17 subject areas for which it is deemed most relevant. The IRN considers the extent to which an institution has a diversity of geography in its international partnerships. This is designed to assess the degree of international openness in research activity achieved by each ranked institution. It has a weight between 5 and 10 per cent.

Most listings

This year, Melbourne Uni has the highest number of total subject listings, increasing by five to 53; edging ahead of Sydney Uni with 52 listings and the Queensland Uni with 50 listings. Go8 universities continue to have the highest number of total listings.

Outside the Go8, UTS increased by seven to 34 listings, followed by Macquarie with 32 listings, Curtin and QUT have 31 listings each. Wollongong, Griffith, Newcastle, La Trobe, Deakin and RMIT have between 25 to 30 listings each.

Top 20

There are 51 instances of Australian universities ranking in the top 20 (or 6.4 per cent of total listings). However, there are 17 fewer listings compared to 68 in 2019, in part influenced by weaker scores in reputation surveys but it is also a reflection of the decreased level of public investment in Australia’s higher education.

Australia’s top global listings are:

  • 2nd for Queensland’s Sports-related subjects
  • 2nd for Monash’s Pharmacy & Pharmacology
  • 2nd for Curtin’s Engineering – Minerals & Mining
  • 3rd for UNSW’s Engineering – Minerals & Mining
  • 4th for Sydney’s Sports-related subjects
  • 4th for Queensland’s Engineering – Minerals & Mining.

There are 12 Australian institutions which have at least one subject listed in the top 20. ANU continues with the most listings (12 times) followed by Melbourne (nine). The other universities with at least one subject listed are: Sydney, UNSW, Queensland, Monash, UWA, RMIT, Adelaide, Deakin, QUT and Curtin.

Top 50

The number of times Australian universities are listed in the top 50 increased from 185 in 2023 to 203 listings this year. As a proportion of total listings, Australia’s performance increased from 24.8 per cent in 2023 to 25.5 per cent this year, but it is down from the height of 30.2 per cent in 2019.

The number of Australian institutions with at least one subject ranked in the top 50 remains unchanged at 23 compared to last year. But the number of top 50 ranked subjects per institution increased from 8.0 in 2023 to 8.8 this year.

Melbourne has the highest number of top 50 listings (39) followed by Sydney (36). Other institutions with top 10 listings include ANU, Monash, Queensland, UNSW, UWA, Curtin and UTS.

Top 100

The number of times Australian universities listed in the top 100 increased by 21 from 354 in 2023 to 375 this year. As a proportion of total listings, Australia’s performance has decreased from 51.1 per cent in 2019 to 47.1 per cent this year.

Australia has a higher proportion of ranked subjects in the top 100 compared to the United Kingdom (44.7 per cent) and the United States (43.3 per cent). Further, Australia has a higher number of top 100 ranked listings per institution (12.9) compared to the United Kingdom (8.9) and the United States (9.8).

Again, this year, the number of Australian universities with at least one subject ranked in the top 100 remains unchanged at 29 compared to last year.

Melbourne and Sydney stand out globally as they have more listings in the top 100 than any other institution worldwide. Melbourne has 53 listings followed by Sydney with 52, then British Columbia Uni and Toronto Uni with 49 listings each.

Other Australian universities which stand out globally are Queensland, Monash and UNSW as they continue to increase number of subjects listed in the top 100. Since 2019, Queensland has increased from 39 to 49 listings, Monash increased from 40 to 49 and UNSW increased from 39 to 47.

It is unsurprising that Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland, Monash and UNSW stand out globally as these universities are the five Australia’s largest universities in terms of total revenue, research income and the ones with the highest expenditure on academic benefits and on-costs.

Food for thought

The top five universities are separated from other large universities, which do not possess the same amount of financial resources to increase rapidly in global rankings.

We are seeing a three-tiered system of Australia’s public universities: those with enough financial resources, which will continue to shine in global rankings; mid-tier universities, which must be astute in their investment choices to remain relevant and competitive, and a group of universities with limited resources. Due to their size and focus, the latter are unlikely to feature prominently in global rankings.

Success reflects past glory

Australia’s continued success in global rankings continue to reflect the years when universities’ finances were stronger.

Australian universities are yet to fully feel the impact of the challenging circumstances experienced over the past five years. The release of QS rankings by subject highlight the importance of the scope of the Australian government’s investment in universities. The Government’s response to the Higher Education Accord review will be fundamental in shaping Australian universities on the global stage.

It is also necessary for our university leaders to ensure that institutional efforts are consistent with existing resources, are aligned to mission and fulfill Australian societal needs. Recently, I wrote that sooner or later university leaders will have to figure out what the right size and shape of institutions is to make ends meet.

As there are no significant year-on-year changes in opportunities for improvement, suggestions I made last year remain relevant:

  • Key for the continued success in global rankings is that we need to act collaborative in promoting Australia as a unified system of high educational quality.
  • On the academic reputation side, we need to be aware that any organisational restructuring, staff movements, operational deficits, and any kind of disruption are likely to influence institutional perceptions elsewhere. Over the years we have seen that subject areas which have experienced considerable variance in performance have been influenced by institutional factors. Mitigating these factors will be helpful.
  • On the employer reputation side, the extent to which our institutions equip graduates to succeed in life post study and have strong links with industry groups in the subject areas of strength are vital to attract positive responses to the survey and thus improve performance.

Angel Calderon is Director, Strategic Insights at RMIT University, and a member of the QS Rankings Advisory Board.



Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Subscribe to us to always stay in touch with us and get latest news, insights, jobs and events!