Over the past generation global university rankings have become an entrenched part of the higher education landscape, and they have in turn spawned an industry of commentary and analysis which has raked over the benefits and limitations of these assessments—and what it means to be ‘world class’—when applied to organisations as complex as universities. One of those limitations is that the standard rankings, which rely heavily on past research activity, provide only a partial view of the scope and impact of universities around the world.
For example, the Irish rankings expert Professor Ellen Hazelkorn has pointed out that the top 100 universities in the prestigious Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) represent only 0.5 per cent of the world’s universities and some 99.6 per cent of the world’s higher education students attend other institutions. The architect of the ARWU, Professor Nian Cai Liu of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, has openly acknowledged that their methodology favoured universities which are heavy in medicine and natural science, and he noted that universities established after 1911 ‘did not have a fair chance’.
This is a serious deficiency in the picture presented by most of the rankings. There is vastly more high-quality education and research going on around the world than accounted for by the older elite universities, including in several Asian nations which have made strong commitments to knowledge-based development. Universities are today much more closely linked to the needs of society and individuals than ever before. In large part this is because of the establishment of new institutions over the past half a century with new expectations and mandates for relevance.
QUT’s hosting of the Times Higher Education (THE) Young Universities Summit serves to remind us of the importance and dynamism of many of these newer universities. Of course critics can point out that 50 years is a rather arbitrary cut off, and flaws remain in efforts to measure activities beyond research, but the achievement of institutions of the calibre of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and, of course, QUT should be acknowledged and celebrated.
Global rankings of universities are here to stay, and the methods they use will continue to evolve. They provide useful benchmarks as well as a spur to further improvement, and in QUT’s case we can take considerable encouragement that our research performance is indeed world class as shown by our ranking in the top 300 globally by both ARWU and THE. But we should always keep in mind that any single ranking is at best a limited representation of what universities are and what they should be. QUT has always held to its defining ethos as a university for the real world, and that means linking our research and education to the needs of students, industry, the professions and wider society in ways that improve lives and advance understanding. As a young university we have come far, and we intend to show much more is possible for a university that is focused on both academic excellence and relevance to the real world.
Professor Peter Coaldrake AO