4 October 2013
Australia’s leading universities have generally gone backwards in the Times Higher Education rankings, which has been attributed to funding cuts announced by the previous government.
The rankings are derived from a survey based on 13 performance indicators, across five areas, ranging from teaching and research to international outlook.
The University of Melbourne remains the highest ranked Australian university but fell six places from 28 to 34 while Australian National University dropped 11 places from 37 to 48.
The negative trend saw Sydney fall 10 places, the University of NSW down 22 places and Adelaide drop out of the top 200. The winners were the University of Queensland, which moved up two places to 63, Monash (up 8 to 91) and the University of Western Australia, which leapt 22 places to 168.
Times Higher Education rankings editor Phil Baty observed that Australia had “fallen back to earth with a bump” this year in the table.
Baty said the results are alarming because the $2.3 billion cuts to the university sector, announced by the Gillard government before the election are yet to be fully felt. He says the new Abbott Government has not indicated it is looking to reverse any of the cuts and its attitude to arts and humanities in particular is also worrying.
Australia risks losing a really strong position in the Asia-Pacific region because it lacks enthusiasm at government level for its universities.
Melbourne University vice-chancellor Glyn Davis says the dramatic change is not so much a consequence of budget cuts, but the perception internationally that local universities have been seriously compromised by the announced cuts.
The ranking is a bit like a stockmarket. How companies are valued is a curious combination of their real performance and market confidence in them. This appears to be the case here; that negative media reports overseas of very substantial funding cuts to the sector by the previous government have played out in the reputation indexes, dragging down institutions.
Rankings expert Simon Marginson, who is on the advisory board of the World University Ranking, reflects a common concern with the THE rankings, saying such reputation surveys are highly volatile and do not reflect “changes in the real world”.
To base a university ranking on opinion surveys is like asking a group of people to guess the distance between the earth and the sun and using the average guess to determine the distance. It wouldn’t be very good astrophysics and it isn’t very good social science of higher education either.