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Times Higher Education World University Rankings: why do we care?

By Nattavud Pimpa - posted Monday, 17 October 2011

The Times Higher Education (THE) World University has recently announced the World’s top 400 Universities. American Ivy leagues and traditional British Universities are among the top 10, as one can predict. The World’s top University for 2011-12 is California Institute of Technology, followed by Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and Princeton Universities.

Universities from Asia have improved their performances from the previous rankings. Nine Universities from Asia, mainly from Japan, Korea and China, are listed in the World’s top 100 Universities. They include University of Tokyo (30), University of Hong Kong (34), National University of Singapore (40), Peking University (49), Kyoto University (52), Pohang University of Science and Technology (53), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (62), Tsinghua University (71), and Korea advanced Institute of Science and Technology (94). Only one University from South East Asia, National University of Singapore (40), has been placed among top 100 Universities.

Compared to most OECD countries, Australia has been performing very well in the ranking system. According to the 2011-12 THE, the University of Melbourne (37), Australian National University (38), the University of Sydney (58), and the University of Queensland (74) have progressed to the World’s top 100 Universities. Some of our non-traditional Universities, such as Charles Darwin University, Flinders University or Swinburne University of Technology, have made it to top 400.


What are the implications of the THE University rankings to Australia?

We can interpret the consequences of the THE rankings in our higher education system in various facets. We understand from THE, that they rank world Universities by investigating the learning environment (30%), volume, income and reputation (30%), research influence (30%), innovation (2.5%) and staff, student and research (7.5%). In reality, all Universities are created in different socio-political and academic contexts. One of the classic arguments is the size of economy and its relationship with higher education system. For instance, THE looks at public and industry research income. However, indicators of public and industry research income as proportions of total research income are not sufficiently appreciative of how the size of one's national economy influences results. In this regard, they tend to advantage Western economic models and their higher education systems, and concurrently disadvantage more nations and developmentally oriented models.

Australian Universities may perform well, due to a number of reasons.

One is the push from the federal Government on research performance. In the last 24 months, Australian academics were bombarded by the idea of the excellence in Research for Australia initiative (ERA), which adopted a combination of indicators and expert review by committees. In February 2011, an analysis of the government's ERA report (conducted by The Australian newspaper) found that only 12 universities were performing research at or above international standard, with the top four performing at a rate that could be considered well above international standard. Academics are trained to aim for better research performance and it has become culture in (almost) all Australian Universities.

Ranking of Journal and publications, hence, were created to make sure that key research outputs were published in the top (A* or A) journals in each discipline. Resources were spent to make sure that your research findings are disseminated in the top rank outlets. For some academics, research has become their top priority because it can ensure the quality of their scholarships. Questions such as "how do you plan to publish in Nature?" or "Have you published in Journal ofcommon issue for discussion among Australian academics. From 2008-2011, all academic conferences I have attended (mostly are in business and management discipline) includes, at least, one session on meeting with the editorial members of Journal of XYZ.

Some academics argue that, because of the strong demand for research and publication, other forms of academic contributions, such as teaching or community services, may have been taken for granted. The university has always been an intellectual community and a forum for discussion and debate. Within the university there are many reservoirs of knowledge to which society at large can have recourse; but it has also been a centre for individuals who have changed society’s perceptions. Not all of its goals are known in advance, and the ongoing ferment is one of its essential characteristic. Clearly, the ranking may not be able to capture some of these aspects.


When we explore the THE rankings, we may assume that traditional universities from the US and the UK tend to perform better than their rivals in Asia, Australia Africa or South America, especially when we explore ‘reputation’ of the institution. In previous years, it was reported that the THE rankings rely on reputational surveys, which involve polling academics about which universities they think are the best in a given field. Hence, it may be meaningless for most academics.

Some argue that these assessments often use too few academics, who may not be well informed about all the universities they are being asked to judge the quality and reputation of the University, and that there is a bias towards English-speaking countries, particularly those from the traditional UK and American systems.

Some academics may argue against the methodology and validity of the ranking system. The clear dilemma of the university rankings system, despite its diversity, is that its core agenda is to develop systems or indicators drawn from one reality, and get them to speak to diverse academic contexts across culture. Australian academic contexts are clearly different from those in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Therefore, our strong performance may be valid or invalid in the global academic culture. The standard uniform of rankings system may promote the homogenization of academic culture, which is not desirable in education.

Of special concern are the aspects of the method which deal with the difficult-to-measure concept of institutional reputation and research influence. Some academics may choose to ignore the ranking. We, however, must admit that THE is one of the highly regarded publications. Its influence is worldwide. Most governments, academic institutions, research funding bodies and students look at them to judge the quality of the universities.

Because of its influence in the international education market, international governments, students and parents will continue to seek out the best institution and continue to consult the wide variety of available university rankings. Leaders in the Australian higher education system must understand the controversy and rules involved in university rankings. It will help Australian universities to improve their academic performance in the future.

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About the Author

Dr Nattavud Pimoa is an Associate Professor in international business at the School of Management, RMIT University.

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