Elitism may be an inevitable consequence of Australia’s quest for university rankings

The climb up the global Times Higher Education rankings will cost more than just higher course fees.

“The higher education sector is being held back and cannot compete with the best in the world,” Treasurer Joe Hockey said in his recent budget address. “[It] should have at least one university in the top 20 in the world, and more in the top 100.”

But how will this goal impact the Australian higher education system?

If Australia is to successfully compete, it must meet the gold standard of the Time Higher Education world university rankings. Here is how our top five universities currently stand in the ranking: 

Global rankTeachingInternational outlookIndustry incomeResearchCitations
University of Melbourne3451.781.365.164.280.2
University of Queensland6343.379.7615873.7
University of Sydney7247.484.466.355.466.6
Monash University9142.578.36748.965.4

Individual scores measured out of 100. Source: Times Higher Education

Each criteria is split between the various rankings:

  • Teaching: the learning environment (worth 30 per cent of the overall ranking score)
  • Research: volume, income and reputation (worth 30 per cent)
  • Citations: research influence (worth 30 per cent)
  • Industry income: innovation (worth 2.5 per cent)
  • International outlook: staff, students and research (worth 7.5 per cent).

While all performance on all categories can be improved, digging into this year’s results reveals that Australia top universities trail the world’s most elite universities in the teaching category. 

Graph for Elitism may be an inevitable consequence of Australia’s quest for university rankings

Grattan Institute’s Higher Education program director Andrew Norton admits Australian universities have a relatively poor reputation for teaching. Norton cites an earlier study from the Australian Council of Education Research which found that on matching questions, US students ranked their academics more favourably than their Australian counterparts.

“Academics perceive that they are rewarded for their research skills than their teaching skills,” he says.

“You are lucky if an academic knows your name let alone is interested in your personal development.”

While Norton agrees with the data, he is critical of the world university rankings system, adding that direct comparisons are tough given it uses “weak proxies” like surveys to measure actual quality. Despite the misgivings, universities, employers, prospective students and -- more recently -- politicians use the rankings to measure where our institutions place in the global academic landscape.

To improve Australia’s teaching scores institutions will need to reduce class sizes to give more students individual attention as well as redirect their academics to give equal priority to both teaching and research.

Institutions who can charge higher fees will be able to do this more easily as they can afford to teach fewer students and still earn enough revenue from enrolments to employ the top teachers in any given field. This new round of deregulation will open up that possibility to top ranked Australian universities.

That has already happened in the rest of the world where all of the world’s most expensive universities are also the highest ranking universities (we'll have more on university fees later this week). 

The decision to pursue rankings at the expense of equality and universal access to education will not come easy for Australia’s leading universities.

The University of Melbourne, top ranked among Australian universities has already flagged a change to its structure in a memo last Friday.

Acting vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil wrote that the change "makes for harder choices".

“In this process we will be mindful of students' best interests, and the need to support outstanding quality education and research at Melbourne for the long term,” she wrote.

“Melbourne is a public-spirited university committed to excellence in research, teaching and learning, and engagement. In the best of all possible worlds, that mission would be proudly and unstintingly supported by the nation.”

But this is not 'the best of all possible worlds', it is in fact a new one and given that the University of Melbourne has already adopted a more US oriented model, it would be unsurprising that they would not adopt a US based approach to fees.

What about the rest of the pack? Will Australia end up like the US, where it’s held that a ticket into the Ivy League is worth a potentally crippling level of post-qualification debt?

According to Norton, recent studies show that employers in Australia still equally value qualifications from those institutions outside of the country’s top universities.

He predicts that in that after 2016, when the reforms come into effect, “middle players" like Deakin University in Melbourne and Macquarie University in Sydney will be able to "make a strong value for money case”.

They will be well-regarded by employers, but offer qualifications at an affordable price, Norton says.

But it’s not impossible to imagine a future scenario where both Australian students and employers grow to favour expensive and exclusive degrees from world-ranked institutions. That titanic shift is the real concern looming at the centre of these reforms. 

What do you think about Australia’s current level of infrastructure? Contact the reporter @HarrisonPolites on Twitter or let us know in the comments below. 

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