University Rankings

Almost all Australian universities have claims on their websites about how they are globally ranked in the top 100 or even among the top 1-2%. These claims are consistently false or misleading. No Australian university is anywhere near universities like Oxford or Cambridge, Harvard or Yale, and they never have been, but this is what those claims are suggesting. Some of our universities have fallen significantly in world rankings because of Covid, some are around the 500 mark and not even individually ranked, and in the years to come, their rankings will probably get worse, not better. These claims are a public scandal, they are unregulated and not being challenged for false advertising, but they are part of the business model of university managements. Anybody considering where or what to study should do their own research on how good a university or a faculty is - and whether it is really worth the money.

Hi @Stefano, welcome to the community.

Not necessarily. There are numerous organisations that rank world universities and will use different methods to compile lists.

Universities can chose which one they want to use (possibly best rating result for marketing materials for prospective students).

If you click on the first website in the above link which was updated in May 2021 (current rating and would consider Covid impacts if there were any), the top Australian universities score in the top 50 (scores 30+) in this website world rankings.

I am not sure how are, if they use ratings generated by independent organisations to the universities. The important factor is to consider how individual ratings were calculated rather than trying to compare between universities based on one’s own opinion or irrelevant factors (such as campus size or total number of students).

Different universities have weaknesses and strengths, and it is important to understand these when deciding on were to do further education…rather than relying solely on a rating system.

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I am aware that universities do in some cases appeal to existing rankings sources, although they often don’t state those sources and it can be difficult to identify them. The problem here is that anybody simply consulting a university website and reading its claims, without independently verifying or evaluating them, is easily misled. As I have said, we have no elite universities - that is not only a question of rankings but also a question of academic quality and standards, the fact that those universities are not mass universities but very selective, that they are not corporatised the way ours are, and other aspects - so there is simply no comparison. Yet to claim, as I have seen on some websites, that they are in the top 1-2% globally, implies that they are in the same league. They’re not. Not all rankings tables are the same - you’re right - but I would then ask why some of our universities don’t cite their rankings in something like the THES table? Some rankings tables are very dubious. If you break down the THES, you will see that there is a general ranking and a series of rankings by different criteria. A university like Sydney or Melbourne may score relatively highly in one or more special categories, but lower in the general ranking. That is also important, because it reflects e.g. different departments and subjects - they may be good in some but not so good in others. And it should be remembered that rankings depend on information provided by the universities themselves. It depends on the diligence of the coordinating rankings group whether or not all of that information is independently verified and tested - or not. But our universities are also spending large amounts of money on achieving good rankings - but not actually ensuring the quality and standards of their teaching and research, but rather on presenting an image. We should beware of that.

Take Charles Darwin University. It claims to be in the top 100, but what it cites is an THE “Impact Ranking”. According to the same THE table, it is ranked overall 501-600 globally for teaching and research quality, and 125th Young University. But if you don’t check this, you assume something differently. I suggest that this is intentional and misleading. It also has one of the lowest completion rates of any Australian university.

Last time I checked, Macquarie had fallen almost 100 positions in the THE table due to Covid. Because of its staff and course cuts, it will probably fall further. It was once among our top half dozen, but not anymore.
Nobody is yet understanding the enormous impact of the academic staff cuts - which actually have nothing to do with Covid, Covid is only an excuse, and universities have been cutting teaching staff for over a decade, just that nobody noticed, and with that they have also cut back on course content - but in addition to 17,000+ F/T lecturers gone nationally, they are also cutting tens of thousands of casual lecturers, who constituted 54% of all university lecturers nationally. That means that staff-student ratios, which ideally should be 1:15, are going to get much worse because enrolments are not dropping off, and the remaining lecturers are going to be even more overworked than they already are. You don’t get a high quality education under those circumstances. They are also cutting entire degree programmes and reducing content in existing programmes, which isn’t good, either. There are other issues here as well, that are not properly captured by rankings but which do determine whether or not you get what you’re paying for. About 70% of every dollar you spend on your university does NOT go towards your education.

Macquarie University is ranked around 200 (QS world ranking), which makes the top 1% of universities in the world (there are over 25000 universities worldwide). So their website quoting in the top 1% is correct.

In the Asia Pacific…not the world. This claim is likely to be correct, with their world ranking significantly less than this.

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Thanks for that clarification. It can be confusing speaking in terms of percentages as distinct from actual rankings. I had no idea there were 25,000 universities worldwide! 200 was the ranking I last saw, but it’s a long way from where it was a year earlier, and a long way from the top. :slight_smile:

That places 250 universities within the top 1%, but there are enormous differences between those universities, they are not all the same just because they are all placed within that sub-set, but there is no differentiation between them if they are only judged by this criterion. Therefore, it only benefits those that are not at the upper end of that range to claim implied parity with those that are. This is therefore a meaningless claim if we really want to know how good any given university is. Hence, only the ranking by numbers from the top down has any usefulness. It can then be suggested that this claim is intentionally misleading.

@Stefano,

A scan of our universities and most international ones show they all advertise in similar ways. The exceptions are those Ivy League universities with significant pedigrees who might feel advertising would be demeaning to their reputations.

I for one surveyed a few of our Universities and found their claims to be credible using the citations they clearly reference. Whether they are meaningfully informative is subjective.

One has a claimed ‘#1 status’ that is clarified (as I read it) via the ranking source as essentially being a nice place to hang out as a student; nothing about academic or research excellence attached to the claim. Some are rife with puffery, a topic discussed elsewhere on the Community, noting puffery is not considered misleading because, to paraphrase, an intelligent person would not believe it at face value.

You have cited what you see as misrepresentation and a problem, but in lieu of referencing and citing respected ranking publications that are individually clear on their methodology, how do you propose the universities should put themselves in a relative context among other universities?

A last question is how many students get misled by university advertising and what disadvantage does that create? If they do not have the curiosity to investigate beyond advertising, one could question whether they should be seeking to attend university at all.

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Hi Phil,

thanks for your comment. I am glad I started this conversation because other people’s questions have made me look at the topic more closely than I had initially, and educated me a little. Last week, I had occasion to wade through the websites of every Australian university, not for this but looking for other information. However, these rankings claims were in your face, I couldn’t avoid them, and having myself both studied and worked as an academic in the UK and Europe, I found them, at least at face value, extremely objectionable. Knowing what I know now, and if I had a choice, I would never study at an Australian university today, simply because I know that they won’t provide the kind of education I would want and expect, not even the best of them, but I would get that in many other countries, whether or not at an elite institution, because the content and standards and other aspects of their systems are so profoundly different from here. Our entire university system is in profound crisis, has been for several decades, and I don’t believe that most people fully understand or know that.

I have no idea how many prospective students are influenced by the first impression of rankings claims, without investigating further and possibly misunderstanding them - as I also did on first impression. To find that out, you would have to get student unions or an independent survey group to investigate. But if universities here are spending a lot of money doing this, as well as trying to make themselves look better than they are with rankings organisations, and if they are not being up-front about their real rankings, then they obviously think that this works enough to see on doing it. If they were really honest, they would all state exactly what their numerical rankings are on their websites with their sources and appropriate links, but they’re not doing that. Sure, you can dig away and find that if you want to, but it isn’t being offered to you - but other types of information ARE being offered. Why? If we were to judge from the relatively uncritical thinking of many in the population, we might also conclude that it works. It is, after all, no different from any other advertising, that has been a highly lucrative business for many decades, and at least for some ‘consumers’ and in some circumstances, it is obviously effective. But I don’t think we should assume that this has no real effect or that everybody does investigate rankings claims further. I also don’t know if there would be any difference between the impact on domestic as distinct from on international students, as all of their advertising is aimed at both cohorts.

Having said that, most prospective students will decide which university they attend partly at least on the basis of various other factors as well, over which they often have less control. It won’t ever be merely on the basis of what any university claims about itself. At the same time, universities have also been spending significant amounts of money on other kinds of enticements for students to enrol with them rather than anywhere else, and you can also see some of those strategies on their websites as well. This is a cut throat business, quite literally.

I don’t think it is a matter of Ivy League universities not advertising themselves like this because it is beneath their dignity. I think it is rather a matter of them simply not needing to because their reputations speak for themselves. Back in the day before all of this, I knew even before I started as an undergraduate where I wanted to do my PhD, and it wasn’t here. But that was because of the academic reputation of those universities I considered as options. The term ‘Ivy League’ refers only to a group of about 11 American universities, but Oxford and Cambridge are in the same ranking level as those, as are a few other universities as well. France has a similar parallel elite higher education system called ‘les grandes écoles’, which is probably not very familiar to most Australians. Particularly for PhDs, those universities operate very differently from ours and attract - and select - a very small intake from all over the world. That isn’t anything comparable with our international student operations.

I therefore think it is all the more revealing that no Australian university feels it has laurels it can rest upon as those universities do, but that instead of allowing a solid world-leading reputation to speak for itself and attract a selected number of students rather than taking all comers, our universities feel they need to make themselves appear better than they are. There are in my opinion telling differences here. One university in Germany had a reputation for almost never giving high grades for its Law students, but everybody wanted to study at that university. Why? Because they knew the standard there was higher and they wanted to achieve that standard, and they also knew that because of the reputation of that department and university, which was well-known but not advertised, they had better career chances as graduates from there rather than from anywhere else. That is the kind of behaviour by universities that is diametrically opposite to how ours operate. Rather than the substance of a reputation, ours manufacture mirages.

I don’t quite share the view that all of this is irrelevant or trivial, or that it isn’t really false advertising, or that because aspects of it are subjective they don’t matter. The organisation Choice and such protective legislation as we have (and the ABC’s Checkout programme) exist because of such problems. It is only that in this case the damage is not lethal or seriously harmful to your health.

I am coming at this not particularly from the issue of such alleged false advertising but rather because it is one aspect of a far greater complex of problems within our entire university sector. This kind of advertising is happening because our universities have been forced to compete with one another and their very financial survival depends on being able to attract as many students as possible, by fair means or foul, along with the student fees and linked government funding, without which their VCs and managers would be forced to eat humble pie. But most of the money they’re getting isn’t going into the cost of delivering the best possible education. And those problems are seriously affecting every aspect of the education they do or don’t deliver, as well as destroying tens of thousands of academics’ lives and careers, and dumbing down the population. Perhaps all of that doesn’t have a place in this forum, but that is the background of my concerns. This advertising issue is a symptom of something far bigger and definitely more serious.

Thanks again for your comment.

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Rankings possibly influence foreign students more than Australian ones. Foreign students are usually unaware on the reputation of universities outside their own country and are more likely to use rankings in assessing what universities they plan to attend (in another country).

Australians usually most go to universities nearby to where they live, unless they live in a rural area or their nearby universities don’t offer the required course. Irrespective of this, there are a lot of other ways to get reputational information about Australian universities than solely relying on ranking. Reputations can be gather from a school’s guidance councillor, speaking to other students, from employers etc.

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Apologies for using an American generalisation. It is ‘what I am’ :wink:

A family member is currently awaiting formal conferral of a PhD from one of our second tier institutions, but his specific faculty is highly regarded internationally and known to work at top levels. He (his university owns it) has a patent that was quickly licensed by industry. Does that suggest his PhD is second rate?

Our universities have been pushed into a precarious situation by long term government policy. Education and research funding are soft targets every time the treasury needs a bit of a kick. I suggest it is unfair to blame the universities and appropriate to point fingers at long term government neglect and what some think is an ideological disdain for most things unrelated to mining or property development or a rort here and there. The rest survive or prosper in spite of our government not because of it. Education is one of the many.

Side stepping, also consider the abysmal standards of many of our ‘private providers’ who have few requirements beyond an ABN but are happy to take money from all and sundry, no promises made beyond banking the tuition as designed by government.

Unlike in many countries our institutions can self accredit! For others oversight is questionable.

While university and private tertiary graduates opinions might be based on irrelevant and incomparable standards there is at least one survey, and it is a survey at the end of the day, not an objective report as best I can tell.

The underlying problem is an unfettered ideology that business will always do the right thing, or go out of business, no need to consider the collateral damage along the way, applying to all of the above.

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I would make a clear distinction between any PhD student (or any student at all, for that matter), and their institution or degree. The fact that academic standards and quality in Australian universities are today neither what they were before ca. 1990 or what they still are in many overseas universities, is not a reflection on the intelligence or potential of individuals. It merely means that they are probably not being required or encouraged to achieve as highly as others were and are, that they are therefore not achieving their own potential, although they may well have considerably greater potential. And there will be a gradual decline even in the quality of academics and researchers as well. But of course some individuals will rise above that and achieve more. From that perspective, it’s only a pity that the standing of institutions doesn’t reflect what some of their students may achieve.

Also granted: individual departments or faculties do stand out above the average performance of the university as a whole. Detailed rankings should identify that, but they don’t always.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that a PhD is only a qualification, and if you remain in the field as an academic or researcher or a professional, you should get better over the course of your lifetime. You are almost never at the top of your game when you do a PhD. And even when PhD research is significant, there is an enormous volume of PhDs that go to waste, their outcomes are never utilised. We could do doing much much more to better utilise all knowledge available and produced in this country.

There has been some recent debate elsewhere in Australia about the ways in which the opinions of students can result in the sacking of lecturers, even when those opinions might be unjustified or taken out of context or when the institutions rather than individual academics may be the real cause of the problem - as well as schools. The over-dependence on student evaluation and absence of critical reflection by university governance in America has long seen this explode into a very serious issue, and there is a danger that the same could occur here. Students may have legitimate views and problems, but it isn’t automatically the fault of one lecturer that they have those problems. And I don’t think that anybody in positions of responsibility or policy is joining the dots and recognising the inter-relationship between poor education of school teachers by universities, poor school education, and then poor levels of knowledge and skills by HSC graduates entering university, who will exit the sausage factory at the other end often little better off then when they entered it. Except for a relatively expensive piece of paper.

Yes, I agree that our universities have been pushed into a particular position by government policy. Government education policy in Australia has been poor since 1788, and it hasn’t been comparable with education policies and systems in most other western countries. It’s a pity we don’t take our national aberrations more seriously instead of being proud of them. However, our universities have also been corporatised in ways that the Dawkins reform did not necessarily envisage or intend, the character of that corporatisation has followed the same pattern as with (other) privatisation in this country, namely, that enterprises have been seen as sources of fat profits by managers and plundered accordingly, and that that exploitation inevitably comes at the cost of quality service delivery. The funding of Australian universities is roughly comparable with that for European university systems, for example, but no university in the EU has corporatised management, they are governed by their academics (which ours once were, still should be, but aren’t anymore), they are therefore not having tens of billions siphoned off into excessive VC and managerial salaries and consultancy fees etc. as we are, they don’t charge fees, they have not casualised 54% of their entire teaching staff, and they deliver a substantively better quality of education than any Australian institution. The current government argued that our universities have sufficient assets to have been able to retain all staff whom they are now in the process of sacking. That is true, and has been confirmed by NTEU research on individual campuses. JobKeeper would never have saved jobs or helped all the casual academic staff, anyway. I won’t go into all the issues here, but it is very murky. Basically, there is a massive top-heavy and quite unsustainable managerial apparatus, most of which is unproductive and unnecessary and not paralleled almost anywhere else, it lacks any sectorial expertise or qualification, and it sucks up an enormous amount of money that would be far better spent on more academics’ salaries and on more research funding, and rather less on Eastern Suburbs mansions. That management has shown NO real expertise in education.

And when lecturers who should be teaching medical students anatomy and physiology or major systems disorders and treatments are sacked to save money, and those courses are no longer taught but those medical students still graduate and become doctors, who then have far less knowledge of problems they’re going to see and have to diagnose and treat correctly every day in practice, except they don’t and they can’t, and then people die preventable deaths or develop serious but preventable complications, it should be time to recognise just how flawed our university system has become in the hands of these managers. This isn’t science fiction, this is really happening - in Australia - and it has been happening for around 20 years.

Yes, education and research have always been soft targets for treasury. I just wonder how treasury ever thinks that our economy is going to become globally competitive and stop being chronically under-developed, as long as it doesn’t see the need to invest in research and education on the scale that all more competitive countries have been doing for decades. We also seem to have a kind of anti-intellectual schizophrenia: on the one hand, we say we want people with critical thinking and problem solving skills… On the other hand, those making the decisions about how we are supposed to acquire those skills don’t appear to have them themselves, they don’t ask how it is that our education system doesn’t seem to be delivering and what would need to change to do that, and we shoot ourselves in the foot by claiming that teaching critical thinking means letting people study Marx - God help us! - and so we don’t.

I also entirely agree that private providers have been rorting the system big time - partly exposed by the ABC a few years ago - while delivering often very little. And we wonder why we allegedly have a national skills shortage! The fact that we have private providers operating like this is also largely a legacy of the Hawke government, however well-intentioned its policies were. They failed utterly in the implementation and in the delusions of neoliberalism. And I agree that we have no genuinely credible and effective regulator of quality and standards in education. TEQSA was supposed to be doing that for universities, rather belatedly set up at all, but it isn’t, it doesn’t employ anybody who knows what they are doing, or should be doing in that respect, and it is a product like everything else of a government ideology of small government, deregulation and non-interference. But if you don’t interfere effectively when things are so obviously wrong, then how will they ever get better? And meanwhile, the entire country suffers the consequences.

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