Universities are too complex to be characterised by one number

30 September 2023
Professor Emma Johnston reflects on latest rankings
Rankings try to characterise a university with a single number but it's more complicated than that, explains University of Sydney Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Emma Johnston.
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Professor Emma Johnston, Univeristy of Sydney Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research)

One of the world’s most prestigious university rankings, The Times Higher Education World University Rankings, have just been released, labelling almost 2000 universities from across the globe with a single number.

While there is good news in the vast quantity of data in the new report there is no getting away from the fact that most Australian universities dropped in their ranking from the previous year and that gives us pause for thought. Are we losing our edge?

The answer is as complex as the ranking methodology itself but there are a few clear take home messages that should make anyone who is invested in higher education in Australia stop in their tracks.

First and foremost, the world is increasing its investment in research intensive universities – this year, about 160 new universities were ranked and 90 of those were universities in Asia, including 20 from India alone.

Countries that want to boost their innovation and productivity know that the quickest and most efficient way to do that is to invest in higher education. This is welcome news for a world that needs our brightest working on solutions to some of the most wicked problems facing our world.

It is clear that the countries that have invested in innovation are riding high and this should be a warning bell to Australians. Our nation’s investment in research and development continues a 14 year decline and if we don’t turn that around, it will inevitably affect our rankings, reputation, and prosperity.

The second take home message is that despite these challenges Australia continues to punch above its weight. Out of those 2000 global universities, Australia has six in the top 100 and that is something to be proud of. With a population of 26 million or 0.33 per cent of the globe, we really have outstanding institutions of higher learning that all Australians should be proud of.

It is also good news that our universities are scoring particularly well in research excellence and research translation. My own university, the University of Sydney, rose from 62 to 54 globally for research environment and we also scored 97.7 out of 100 for industry income and our research influence on patents. That means our research is foundational to newly registered patents – which are the basis of new-to-market products and services.

Finally, it is crucial that we should not compare the 2022 rankings directly with the 2023 results.

Big data is both empowering and confusing. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings is undoubtedly the most complex of the ranking methodologies, and between 2022 and 2023 it got even more complicated.

There were at least six major changes to the way the calculations were done across teaching, research, industry, and internationalism and some of these changes systematically disadvantaged Australian universities. Singapore and Sweden were similarly down, while US, German, and Chinese universities rose.

So, what’s in a number? You won’t find a university that relies on a single number to assess its progress – how do you distil an institution which fosters future leaders, entrepreneurs and inventors and is central to our security, prosperity and wellbeing – into one statistic?

Of course, we know that measures and metrics are important and as the sophistication of data science tools continues to improve, our ability to quantify and monitor our inputs, activity, and outputs continues to expand.

But not everything that counts can be counted.

So, we will continue to rely on a multiplicity of measures and peer review to assess progress towards a range of objectives.

Our missions are broad, we serve multiple communities, we supply the bedrock for future discoveries and all universities share the same goal; we want our young people to have a bright future and be a force for good.

And you can’t put a number on that.

Professor Emma Johnston is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Sydney.

This article was first published by The Australian.

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