Australia’s universities must abandon the bogus rankings game

The Australian’s higher education editor, Tim Dodd, claims the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the bogus international university rankings system:

For the past decade or more the power and influence of the top three rankings — QS, Times Higher Education and the Academic Ranking of World Universities — has been growing and growing. It became the de facto measure of quality for universities, based on little more than a list of tick boxes that people agreed to agree would determine what was good and worthwhile in higher education.

For any university that moved up these rankings, the rewards were great. More international students came their way, bringing a river of gold in the form of higher tuition fees, which then funded the university’s efforts to move yet higher in the rankings by funding research, and buying in researchers, to win publication and citations in top level journals…

But now it’s time to question why those rankings are so influential, and whether we should buy into the picture they paint of the “quality” of a university.

There is plenty to question. It’s risible that, in the methodology of both the QS and the Times Higher Education rankings, universities do better if they have more international students. Since Australia’s universities are facing crisis because they were too reliant on international students, I think we can all agree this is way too simplistic a formula.

Students, and their parents, should also question why a university that does well in research — which accounts for all of the ARWU ranking and a significant portion of the other two — is necessarily a university that will teach well…

Finally, they should note that gaming the rankings has become a specialty in itself and universities spend a lot of time and effort trying to do that. In other words, a ranking tells you little more than how successful a university has been in playing the rankings game…

But with international student revenue collapsing, Australian universities won’t have nearly the same ability to push themselves up the global rankings. They have lost the money they need to play the game. So we can expect that, after a decade and a half of upward progress, Australian university rankings will slip in coming years. If we are interested in the real “quality” of our universities, that won’t be a bad thing.

Tim Dodd is right. A lot of the university research is of questionable value and is aimed squarely at catapulting universities up the bogus university rankings.

These university rankings are then used as a marketing tool to attract more international students to study in Australia.

That is, a higher university ranking means more prestige and is a sign of quality. This then encourages international students to choose that institution over another and also justifies charging higher tuition fees.

What is lost in this whole debate is the impact on domestic students.

While universities have ploughed the international student bounty into research to boost their rankings, actual teaching quality has been destroyed.

This is evidenced by the ratio of students to academic staff rising materially across Australia’s universities during the long international student boom:

The majority of international students come from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds (NESB), and require more teaching assistance than domestic students. Accordingly, the bigger student loads, alongside the higher maintenance of international students, indicates a significant decline of both teaching capacity and quality across Australia’s university system.

We have also witnessed domestic students carrying NESB students through their courses via group assignments, alongside an increase in soft marking scandals and cheating scandals as international students have ballooned.

Instead of worrying about the losing research capability and falling down the bogus world university rankings, Australia’s universities must get back to their primary role of providing high quality education to Australians.

They must stop acting like blood-sucking corporations operating low-quality degree factories for maximum revenue.

Unconventional Economist


  1. Just submitted this almost exact same message to get relayed to a State Government “think tank” (??) appointed to work out the “economic way forward”…blah blah blah. Of course they will ignore everything put forward & of course probably next week they will announce the usual blah blah blah “we need more population” i.e. skilled uber migrants, “we need an enhanced FHB grant” i.e. property council etc in their ear… blah blah blah……! Nothing but nothing can change in this silly environment. And maybe in any case why shouldn’t every rent seeker just blast forward their case, when you think the about it the share market around the world has been given the biggest bailout in world history. All paid for by….?

    • Super Phoenix

      Good question. If everything is bailed out by the printing press, who will *really* pay for the bailout?

      Savers, of course, but in a world in which few savers exist? Bond holders?

      • Printing money is like a tax — you are simply stealing purchasing power from people who earn a fixed income and from savers. That’s who pays. People who get the regular 1.5% – 2% pay rise a year are going backwards almost all the time because credit growth is almost always increasing at a faster rate.

        Straya’s M1 (narrow money supply) is currently growing at a rate of c.24% !! That’s going to leak into some serious inflation in consumer prices down the road.

        Which is why, if you understand the game from the outset, you get on the asset-ownership bandwagon ASAP.

        • Super Phoenix

          Yes, fixed income earners like pensioners will lose big time. I just didn’t quite understand how it works with time.

          I mean, savers and cash holders will lose today. Fixed income earners like pensioners will lose in future if their pay checks stay the same. But my guess is that they will not remain silent and demand pay rise, which will add to the ongoing inflation. Since the pay rise will also come from the same printing press, it is not immediately clear how the damage will be distributed….. I guess it depends on the scale of the pay rise, still, it is hard to get my head around…..

          Of course, once the inflation rate reaches 10% per hour or so, everybody will queue to get rid of their paycheck as soon as possible in exchange for something more real. The concomitant waste in time will be astronomical.

        • I think upon it as a transfer of wealth from savers and those without wealth (people who may get assets in the future) to asset holders.

      • People who earn salaries are losers too because their salaries are not keeping up with the rate of money supply expansion. It’s that simple.

  2. Super Phoenix

    Tim Dodd is a traitor to the much-cherished Strayan model of (fat cat – trickle down) economics. How could an MSM transmit such a blatant lie? Another classical European-style inquisition is in order – publicly burn a few conspicuous witches to keep the rest in line.

  3. Super Phoenix

    To be fair, all that is said here can equally apply to branding in general. A well-recognized brand can command higher prices than its peers and fatten the margin. And how many consumers actually know, or even care, about the real quality of a brand? How much better are well-known brands than the others (especially if they are made in China or Malaysia, etc.)?

  4. happy valleyMEMBER

    “They must stop acting like blood-sucking corporations operating low-quality degree factories for maximum revenue.”

    A leopard never changes its spots. Nor do rort-infested governments.

  5. “They must stop acting like blood-sucking corporations operating low-quality degree factories for maximum revenue.”

    why they were corporatised in the first place ?

    Corporatisation and pushing markets and economic logic among public sector universities has inevitably led to the rise of managerialism and formal corporate lingo like efficiency and effectiveness. To be able to exist in this corporatised world universities were forced to come up with definitions of inputs, outputs and outcomes as a means to rendering these activities visible and measurable. Ultimately, this new corporate management of universities was forced to use bogus measures like rankings, completion rate, number of degrees awarded, research funding money, quantitative measures of published work, .. … to measure their performance … what else would a corporate management use

    And as it happens in all aspects of human endeavours, as soon as a measure becomes a goal it gets corrupted (as Goodhart and Campbell noticed before).

    So one can hardly blame universities or even their management, because they were forced by the government policies to do these things.

    There are alternatives, like keeping universities,at least their finances in public hands like many European countries do. That’s much easier to do when university education is free, but in many western european countries with good higher education sectors university employees are public servants paid directly from the budget. Government decides quotes for students, teaching, research staff, research spending, …
    In a sense, that way public has more control over public universities because there is one less level of “representative bureaucracy” in between. The problem is that in such scenario government departments needs to be more competent and do the work …

    I recommend The subversion of Australian universities
    edited by John Biggs and Richard Davis

  6. “should also question why a university that does well in research … is necessarily a university that will teach well…”

    I’ve always wondered why this relationship should be so. Just another marketing mind-trick — here, have this beautifully packaged dog sh!t. And, of course, there’s the kudos you get from having attended this ‘prestigious’ Uni.

  7. ‘Gaming the system’, more broadly this is what is happening across the board, this is the problem, the ‘winners’ out there have a doctorate in ‘gaming the system’!!!!

    Bad luck for the rest of us who might actually just want to do things the right, honest way with integrity!

    Since when does this definition = ‘loser’?????

    • @ GlendaF 1000 Most of my life I have tried to live like this, the honest way .. what a mug I have been *shakes head*

  8. DingwallMEMBER

    Via SMH ………. Moooooooooo!

    Chinese education agents say they will not recommend studying in Australia and have threatened to divert thousands of students to the UK as the sector reels from a dispute between Australia and its largest trading partner.

    The comments are the first sign that a warning delivered by China’s Ministry of Education on Tuesday will trickle down to consumers, as education agents accuse Australia of discriminating against their students and using them as a cash cow.

  9. Mass migration generates our “independent” GDP ranking. Mass students generate our “independent” uni rankings.

    Here are some independent rankings, not invented by well paid economists, in service of the “free market” and encrusted wealth: Length. Mass. Time. Volume. Temperature.

  10. Time to split education from research. It’s a tired model not really fit for today’s requirements.

  11. The conflict between research and teaching is artificial. It is a distraction from the real problems. Problems like misdirected resources to bloated admin, admin and Senates with no education experience or motivation, pressure to reduce quality of teaching to cope with reduced resources, pressure to lower standards to cope with poorer students, social justice warrior power grabs perverting critical thinking. Tension between education and teaching is encouraged. Divided we fall. Education specialists with their faddish ways are taking over universities and they are also part of the problem. If I had to choose between hearing from Nobel laureates or the best educating specialists, I know which one I would choose.