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QS ratings: an ok year for Aus unis

16 June 2022

Australian university have avoided a significant major downturn in standing in global rankings over the past two years but there are challenges

Angel Calderon | Campus Morning Mail 

Early this morning QS released its 2023 World University Rankings (WUR). This year’s rankings include 1422 institutions from 100 countries, compared to 1300 institutions last year or 1024 in 2020.

Despite all the criticism of global rankings, institutional appetite for participation in QS rankings remains unabated. There are 120 new entrants to this ranking, drawn from 38 countries across all world regions. 25 are from the United States, 13 from the People’s Republic of China, and 39 from Latin America.

Australia is tenth in the number of institutions included in the ranking. Of the 38 ranked Australian universities 24 are in the world’s top 500, two fewer compared to last year.

Whilst Australian universities continue to perform well compared to our main competitors, there are mixed results which signal problems may lie ahead if these are not addressed.

Let us first consider the overall performance for Australian universities over time and the areas of strengths and weaknesses. In doing so I will highlight some areas for which all Australian universities will need to consider mitigating some of these weaknesses and external threats.  I then focus on some changes QS will introduce for next year’s WUR.

Movers and shakers

Of the 24 Australian universities included in the world’s top 500, 12 moved up in position and 12 moved down.

There were only five institutions which moved up between ten and 46 positions: La Trobe  U moved the most, from 362 last year to 316 this year, followed by Swinburne  U, from 321 last year to 296 this year. Deakin University moved up 17 positions from 283 last year to 266 this year. The University of Tasmania improved by 10 positions from and now ranks 293, after spending the previous two years ranked outside the world’s top 300.

RMIT University has returned to the world’s top 200 at =190, after making sustained gains in QS rankings over the past six years – mainly in the citations per faculty indicator. RMIT moved up 16 positions from 206 last year.

Over the past five years, Australia has maintained the same number of institutions (seven) ranked in the world’s top 100. These were all Go8 universities.

Australian gains have been in the number of institutions which rank in the 101-200 band. In the 2019 edition, there were only two – Adelaide and UTS – and now in the 2023 edition there are seven: Adelaide (109), UTS (137), Wollongong (=185), RMIT (=190), Newcastle (192), Curtin (193) and Macquarie (=195).

Further weakening in academic reputation

For the past two years, we observed that there was a small but noticeable weakening in the performance of Australian universities in the academic reputation component of QS WUR (CMM, 9 June 2021 and CMM  15 June 2020).

This year, the decline is more severe and has affected 34 out of the 38 ranked Australian universities. On average, the downward movement in the academic reputation survey was 1.1 points. There were three universities which moved up (between 0.1 and 0.4 points) and one remained unchanged in score.

This decline is more than a passing negative sentiment towards our universities. Whilst we often say our weakening in performance is due to the rise of Asian universities, it is also in part our own doing.

Two years ago, we wondered whether the onset of the pandemic may have influenced the way academics voted, but we were also arguing on the over reliance of Chinese students (or lack of diversity in our international student cohort mix). The fact that Australia kept its borders closed for almost two years has most likely not helped foster a positive sentiment towards our universities.

Employer reputation is dented

Last year, only ten Australian universities experienced a decline in the employer reputation. We considered that this was an improvement from two years ago when we noticed a small decline in performance. The bad news is that every Australian university has declined on this measure. The institutions which declined the most were those from the Go8 and ATN; those which declined the least were those from regional Australia and smaller sized institutions.

There is work ahead for all Australian universities to ensure that employers’ perception does not continue to decline, as this continued negative sentiment is likely to resonate when the QS Rankings by Subject are published next March.

This is not a call for universities to embark on awareness campaigns to boost reputation; rather, it is a call for university leaders to address regaining trust from taxpayers. The key to a university’s mission is to equip learners with the necessary skills or abilities to meaningfully participate in the country’s economy, and ensure learners attain what they set to achieve.

A quick reminder on the methodology: reputation surveys account for 50 per cent of the overall score (40 per cent for the academic survey and ten per cent for the employer survey).

Continued decline in student to staff ratio

The measure of student to academic staff accounts for 20 per cent of the overall score. For some years now, Australian universities have been trending downwards on this measure. This year, 22 Australian universities moved down in score, 13 moved up, and three had their score remain unchanged.

On this measure, Bond U is Australia’s highest ranked institution at 338, followed by ANU at 404 and Newcastle at 455. The remaining 35 Australian universities are ranked in the 601+ band.

The fact that Australian universities transitioned to remote delivery methods during the pandemic year of 2020 and in 2021 worsened the academic to student ratio for many institutions. It is unlikely that Australian universities will see an improvement on this measure anytime soon.

Uplift driven by citations

The improvement for Australian universities on this ranking rests again on higher citations per score. This measure accounts for 20 per cent of the overall score. Out of the 38 Australian universities, 28 moved up in score and 10 moved down, compared to 34 up and four down last year.

There are now 21 Australian universities which rank in the world’s top 200 on this measure, compared to 17 last year or eight in the 2015 edition.

A small decrease in international measures

Australian universities remain strong on the two measures of internationalisation. These measures each account for 5 per cent towards the overall score. In the proportion of international students, 23 institutions moved down in score, nine moved up, and six remained unchanged in score. Last year, 15 institutions moved down, 21 moved up, and two remained unchanged.

In the proportion of international faculty, 13 Australian institutions moved up in score, 17 went down, and 8 remained unchanged. Last year, nine institutions moved up in score, 14 went down, and 14 remained unchanged.

Any losses in standing for these measures which Australian universities may have experienced in the past two years are likely to be regained over the next two years as Australia has reopened its borders for international travel.

New indicators for next year’s rankings

QS methodology has remained relatively unchanged since 2005. Whilst there have been methodological refinements over the years, QS results have been more stable compared to other global ranking schemas.

From next year, QS will introduce two metrics which are likely to result in some volatility. I suspect that this volatility will not be as disruptive as what we have seen, for example, in the Academic Ranking of World Universities, with the annual update of the Highly Cited Researcher List.

Employment outcomes

This measure has been used by QS on its Graduate Employability Outcomes (QS GER), which is a composite of two metrics – “graduate employment rate” and “alumni outcomes.”  The introduction of this indicator is likely to be controversial as the concept of employability is often contested as a proxy measure of the value of a university education.

“Graduate employment rate” involves measuring the proportion of graduates (and excludes those who are in further study or unavailable to work) in full- or part-time employment within 12 months of graduation. This metric is more like a labour force participation and not employment per se.

The second metric in the employability indicator is one which QS has also used in the QS GER. “Alumni outcomes” has been used in the QS GER, and it aims to identify those graduates who are high achievers. QS uses a combination of externally published lists and other sources of information which identify prominent alumni.

International Research Network (IRN)

The IRN index is the second indicator QS will introduce. This index 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.

QS first used this metric in the 2016/17 edition of QS Latin American University Rankings. QS has also used this indicator in the other regional rankings (Asia, Arab and Emerging Europe and Central Asia), which it publishes on an annual basis.

Looking ahead

Now that the first of the three main rankings are out for this year, Australian university leaders can feel relieved we have avoided a significant major downturn in standing in global rankings over the past two years. It has been a difficult period for the university community, but many challenges remain unresolved. Fortunately, global rankings reflect past performance.