Record number of Australian universities crack world’s top 200
A record number of Australian universities have been ranked among the world's top 200, but experts warn their success could be short-lived if they can no longer fund strong research.
Nine of the country's 12 top-ranked universities have improved their position on the annual Times Higher Education rankings, which its chief knowledge officer Phil Baty said demonstrated Australia's "extraordinary success" in attracting international talent.
UTS has moved up to joint 160th in the annual Times Higher Education university rankings.Credit:Janie Barrett
"But what we can reasonably assume is this is very vulnerable success [because] it is dependent on international students," he said.
The University of Technology Sydney showed the most improvement, bolting 34 places to joint-160th, while Macquarie University nudged into the top 200 for the first time, at joint-195th.
Higher education expert, Professor Andrew Norton, said the rankings did not yet account for the COVID-19 crisis that had crippled revenues and led universities to slash jobs and courses.
"Australia has been very successful in using international student revenues to boost research output. In turn, the boosted research output has helped push them up the rankings," he said.
"That already is in significant decline due to fewer international students. It will start falling from this year."
Macquarie University is ranked in the top 200 among universities around the world.Credit:Virginia Star
But he said Australian universities would still be concerned about maintaining their rankings in the hope international enrolments recover.
The University of Melbourne remained the country's highest ranked university at 31st on the table, which is regarded as the most influential in higher education and a key driver of overseas student enrolments.
The University of Sydney rose nine places to joint-51st, overtaking the Australian National University, which slid nine spots to 59th.
While the Group of Eight universities consolidated their places, overall Australian success came from newer universities.
UTS was the highest ranked Australian university in terms of internationalisation, which factors in overseas students, academics and international research projects. Acting vice-chancellor Professor Andrew Parfitt said UTS' rise proved its growing global reputation as a "significant research institution in our own right".
But both UTS and Macquarie have since committed to cutting jobs, although the latter has not detailed how many.
Mr Baty said becoming smaller universities – which Macquarie has vowed to do – would not necessarily hurt rankings so long as they maintained research impact.
"Where there’s a worry of course, is losing talent. If you have fewer star academics, fewer researchers, that will be a risk," he said.
"The most significant thing will be losing income if there's a longer term reduction in international students. That funding pays for superstar researchers, doing quality research and driving up rankings."
He said geopolitical tensions with China could also become "very painful" for Australia if students were discouraged from coming.
However, Australia could find an advantage over the United States and United Kingdom, which it competes with for student enrolments, because of its handling of the pandemic.
"Australia and New Zealand have come out quite well despite the recent upsurge – perceptions of safety might advantage [them]," Mr Baty said.
While the University of Oxford remained the world's top university for a fifth year and the US took eight of the top 10 spots, Mr Baty said that success masked more general decline.
Both countries' status as higher education superpowers are challenged by rising Asian institutions. China's Tsinghua University became the first Asian university to make the top 20, while the number of Chinese institutions in the top 100 doubled, from three to six.
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