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Uni rankings: USyd steady, ANU slides

An incorrectly weighted rankings system reveals more about universities' incentives than their performance.

In the latest research rankings from the prestigious Shanghai-based Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), released this week, the University of Sydney has fallen one place to 83 while the Australian National University (ANU) has dropped 20 places to 97.

The University of Melbourne remains Australia’s top university at 39, followed by the University of Queensland at 55.

The ANU’s precipitous drop reflects more about the perils of university ranking methodology than a radical change in the university’s performance.

According to Stephen Matchett of the Campus Morning Mail, a daily higher education newsletter, the ANU’s fall in the rankings is a product of just two researchers leaving the institution.

Another radical change in the rankings —  between 2015 and 2016, the University of Queensland jumped about 30 places — was the result of a change in the ranking algorithm.

But there are broader problems with the ARWU. It uses a methodology that relies on six criteria, none of which have any direct impact on undergraduates’ experience of uni. The criteria are: the number of alumni who have won Nobel or Fields prizes, the number of staff who have won the aforementioned prizes, the number of highly cited staff according to Thomson Reuters, articles published by staff in the journals Nature and Science, number of articles by staff in the Science and Social Science Citation Indexes, and finally a measure that reflects the university’s performance adjusted for size.

Almost all of the ARWU metrics are heavily weighted towards scientific, mathematical, medical and engineering research. There is no Nobel Prize for history, for example, and besides economics, the only other social science prize — in literature — is much more frequently won by poets, novelists and songwriters than academics. Similarly, only mathematicians are eligible for the Fields Medal.

The ARWU’s unequal weighting encourages universities to invest more heavily in STEM than the humanities.

While the ranking does allot 10 per cent of its formula to account for small universities’ inherent inability to produce as many citations and prize winners as large unis, it does not account for the 90 per cent of the metric that is determined by size-influenced critera.

This encourages a ‘go big or go home’ attitude that can be detected in USyd’s rapid growth in student numbers over the last several years, which shows no signs of slowing down.

Despite the obviousness of these problems, rankings will continue to shape Australian universities’ policies so long as they influence international students’ choice of where to study — a choice on which Australian unis’ financial stability depends.