Caps threaten Aust uni rankings

The global rankings season gets started in earnest next month. QS will release its 2025 World University Rankings (WUR) on 4 June, then Times Higher Education (THE) will release its 2024 Impact Rankings on 12 June.

To set the scene for what lies ahead, let me highlight three measures of research performance.

Firstly, the number of scholarly outputs indexed in Scopus in 2023 compared to 2022 decreased by 3.3 points across Australia. 28 institutions decreased in volume of output and 11 increased. The fastest one-year improver institutions were Charles Sturt, Sunshine, Federation, Southern Cross and Edith Cowan. The compound growth over the past five years for Australia was 1.7 per cent, being more than half the growth seen in previous years.

Secondly, the proportion of top-quality publications continued to rise. The proportion of publications in the top journal quartile increased to 63.1 per cent, up from 61.8 per cent in 2022 or 59.2 per cent in 2019.Furthermore, the proportion of publications in the top 1 per cent of journals increased to 3.1 per cent in 2023, up from 2.7 per cent in 2022 or 2.5 per cent in 2019.

Thirdly, total research income for Australian universities increased by 3.4 per cent in 2022 from 2021. Among the 37 public universities, eleven decreased in income in 2022 compared to 2021. The relative share of total research income for Group of Eight institutions has decreased from 68.3 per cent in 2011 to 64.7% in 2022, while the share of income has increased for Australian Technology Network institutions from 10.2 per cent to 12.2 over the same period. The share of research income for Regional Universities Network institutions increased from 2.0 per cent in 2011 to 3.2 per cent in 2022.

While we are likely to see Australia’s research-intensive universities and those with strong reputation do well in this year’s global rankings, their relative standing is not guaranteed, as rankings largely reflect past performance. What we are seeing is that progressively Australian universities are showing a degree of maturity and are not keeping pace with the strong growth seen in middle income economies, particularly in Asia.

Last year’s methodological changes introduced by QS and THE to their world university rankings largely contributed to Australian universities’ improved performance. This year’s results are likely to show modest gains, with not much left in the tank. This is because our universities have been experiencing operating deficits for some years.

However, an unintended consequence of the government’s plan to restrict overseas enrolments in universities is that Australia could have fewer universities ranked in the world’s top 200.

It is worth reminding readers that there is a strong link between the size of the approved institutional capacity to enrol international students and its overall score in QS and THE WURs. The higher the capacity to enrol international onshore students the higher the number of enrolled international students and the higher the rank.

In the absence of increased government funding, universities have relied on an increased number of international students.

Often enough Income generated by universities from the recruitment of international students is invested in expanding the research capacity in key disciplines. This helps to explain why there are several universities which perform relatively well in rankings which have a greater reliance on research and bibliometric measures.

To limit the potential capacity for Australian universities to enrol international students will lead to reduced revenues, limiting academic capacity to support students. It will also adversely impact the ability of our universities to continue to produce top quality publications through research that makes a difference to people’s lives and contribute to solve societal problems. Consequently, the standing of our universities in all global rankings, including specialised and subject rankings, will be adversely impacted.

This adverse impact will be felt gradually, depending on when the cap on international student capacity is legislated and enacted.

Among the various measures considered by both QS and THE, one is a measure which reflects the proportion of international students.

Therefore, a decrease in the number of international students will be felt first, followed by a decrease in per capita measures (e.g., institutional income per staff) because of reduced revenue from international students.

Then, it will translate to the research environment and impact measures and our universities are likely to drop out in global rankings. Over the next five years, Australia could have fewer universities ranked in the world’s top 200 and even the top 100 across ranking schemas.

A cap to the number of international students to any of Australia’s 37 public universities, without increased public funding, will be detrimental to the viability of our universities and runs contrary to the interests of the country.



Sign Up for Our Newsletter

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