Reputation under threat and we will feel it soon

Every time global rankings are released, discussions are had on their inherent value and usefulness (or lack thereof). Global rankings are particularly criticized for their reductionist approach in presenting a picture about what universities do, how they play a role in shaping society, and their impact in the economy.

This month, QS launched the 21st edition of its World University Rankings (WUR), which included 1502 institutions spread across 106 countries, compared to 200 from 29 countries for the first edition in partnership with Times Higher Education in 2004.

Australia is in a unique position, with 38 of its 42 universities are included in QS WUR. Of these, nine are in the top 100, compared to six in the 2017 edition. Another 16 are among the top 400.

Most asked questions

A question I often get asked by colleagues is, how do rankings reflect what is happening in universities? It all depends on the ranking schema and what kind of change we are discussing.

Given the lagging nature of the data used to assess universities, time plays a significant role. The first sign can be seen within 12 months via the reputation survey, but it will usually take two to three years.

Let’s illustrate an example using the indicators used in QS WUR.

For the research metrics, QS extracted Scopus data in January 2024 for papers covering the period between 2018 and 2022, and citations covered the period between 2018 and 2023.

For the student and academic staff data used for the 2025 edition, QS utilized data that covered the 2022 academic period in Australia.

We typically observe that when there is structural change at the discipline, school or college level, staff share their sentiments with peers in other institutions. Often enough, this sentiment influences how people assess institutions when reputation surveys are conducted. This is because QS conducts the academic and employer reputation surveys annually. Early in the year, QS sends out emails inviting academics and employers to respond to these surveys. These responses are analysed and inform the results which were published this month.

Given the current debate on the government’s proposed cap on international student enrolments in Australian universities, they are likely to feel its impact in 2027 when QS will publish its 2028 edition. However, the impact on our universities’ reputation may happen sooner. We will see what happens when QS reputation surveys happen for next year’s edition.

Another question that often gets asked is if rankings will prevail over the long term. On the one hand the appetite for global rankings is weaning in some national systems; in others it continues to be a pathway for the ability to undertake either national or regional benchmarking.

However, there are more ranking schemas which continue to come to life. Earlier in the year, the CTWS Leiden Ranking launched an open edition of its bibliometric focused ranking. There is also another ranking of highly ranked scholars, Scholar GPS and later in the year, Times Higher Education will launch its Interdisciplinary Science Rankings.

Let’s see what happens in the coming months and how institutions can mitigate the consequences of policy decisions that are likely to have lasting impact across the board.



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