University rankings – What they mean and their value

university rankings

The Australian Financial Review published their inaugural Best Universities Ranking on Wednesday 22 November, evaluating each Australian university in five areas:

  • Research performance
  • Global reputation
  • Student satisfaction
  • Career impact
  • Equity and access

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some familiar names crop up at the top of the list. But what exactly do these rankings mean, and how seriously should they be taken by prospective students?

The best universities?

The AFR ranked these universities as the top five out of Australia’s 40:

  • University of Queensland
  • University of New South Wales
  • The Australian National University
  • Monash University
  • The University of Adelaide

But things start to get interesting when you dive into the full scores. UNSW received second overall place, largely bolstered by the fact that it’s ranked 1st for career impact, and 2nd for both research performance and global reputation. On the other hand, it was only ranked 36th for student satisfaction (that’s the 4th lowest possible rank!) and 29th for equity and access.

So what does this tell us?

What actually matters to students

What these lists tell students is that esoteric and potentially biased factors like global reputation (calculated by using “underlying data from the most prominent international rankings agencies“) and research performance should matter more than how satisfied they are with their experience, or how equitable the university’s policies and practices are.

Which in reality, seems kind of backwards. A student in Year 12 probably isn’t going to be involved with a university’s research department for a few years – if ever, as most students only complete degrees by coursework. What will immediately concern them is whether or not the university caters to students from diverse backgrounds, or how happy they are in their classes.

When sorting the rankings by student satisfaction, the list is completely flipped on its head, with these five universities rated best:

  • Bond University (=12th overall)
  • Edith Cowan University (6th overall)
  • University of the Sunshine Coast (=15th overall)
  • The University of Notre Dame Australia (=30th overall)
  • Deakin University (=7th overall)

And again when sorted by equity and access:

  • Central Queensland University (=12th overall)
  • Federation University Australia (=33rd overall)
  • James Cook University (=15th overall)
  • University of Wollongong (=7th overall)
  • University of New England (=24th overall)

Even when sorted by best career outcomes, only 2 of the top 5 overall ranked universities make the list:

  • University of New South Wales (2nd overall)
  • The Australian National University (3rd overall)
  • Charles Sturt University (=38th overall)
  • Central Queensland University (=12th overall)
  • The University of Sydney (=15th overall)

What’s difficult to understand is how the top 5 universities can be given such a rank based on only two (maybe three) of five total criteria. And the reason is clear: these rankings obviously place more importance on research and global reputation than student satisfaction, equity, and career outcomes.

Weighing up the rankings

Professor Tim Brown, former director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute and contributor to the rankings, explains the weightings as such:

“The pillar scores on student satisfaction and research are equally weighted for the overall score. Because these two are direct measures of university performance, these were rated at three times the other three equally weighted pillars, averaging to compute the overall score.”

It’s easy to understand how student satisfaction has a direct link with university performance, particularly from a student perspective. And a university’s research output is also incredibly important – it “informs public debate, improves our health and wellbeing, and helps solve our most complex problems“.

The problem is inextricably tying research output to a university’s overall reputation. Is research valuable, and should universities strive to produce quality research? Absolutely, yes. Is it a factor your average student should consider highly when choosing a university to study at? Probably not.

And why not a higher emphasis on equity and access? A student can’t be satisfied with a university at all if they can’t even get in.

Student opinion and bias

Emeritus Professor Stephen Parker, AO, former national lead partner for education with KPMG and former vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra, says this about the rankings:

We say that the measurable quality of a university lies in its teaching; its research; the confidence it engenders in the value of its degrees through its wider reputation; the way it helps people in their careers; and how it counteracts disadvantage in the community.

Although we bring these together into a single, composite list, we also separate out the scores, enabling different versions of “good” to be curated.

But when a student is looking at this list – and certainly when other news outlets report on the results – it’s common for them to take the overall rankings as pure fact. This can lead to the perpetuation of biases about certain universities (Kaidesoja, 2022), and at worst, deepen educational inequalities (Amsler, 2014). Put simply, once a university is deemed “best” or “worst”, rankings like this tend to only push that bias even further.

Rankings of this sort should, therefore, not simply be handed to students with no explanation or guidance.

Using rankings wisely

How students, teachers, and even the general public use rankings like these (and others) should come down to their own individual situations. And this can encompass a huge variety of factors: where you live, your background, what you want to study (and why), your goals beyond university, etc.

If a high school student living in a rural area is thinking of heading off to university, it may be best to look at the rankings based on equity and access rather than overall score. Meanwhile, a graduate student considering research opportunities might find the research rankings most valuable.

One huge positive of the AFR’s rankings is that they are the first to take into account student satisfaction and equity at all. This is in opposition to rankings such as the QS World University Rankings and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which don’t factor these in.

But there is still further to go. Lots of other factors that can impact student satisfaction and success are still too difficult to measure and compare, according to Professor Stephen Parker:

Arguably a sixth dimension would be the staff one: what is it like to work there? No systematic and national data yet exists to provide a counterpart to the public data on student perspectives.

Possibly a seventh would be university engagement with communities, but again there is no available way to compare and contrast our universities validly on this dimension.

A still more elusive metric would be “value for money”.

Finding the right university

As Professor Stephen Parker said, there should be many different versions of “good”. What’s good for one student might not be good for another – and that’s OK.

Students shouldn’t consider any of the universities on the list “bad”, no matter where they are ranked. Where a university excels in one area, it might falter in another. It’s about taking into account your own needs and preferences and weighing them up with what a university offers.

Rather than looking up a ranking, we suggest students ask themselves these questions to find the right university for them:

  • What do I want to study, and where is it offered?
  • Do I need to move away to study, and how far am I willing to go?
  • What do other students say about their experience?
  • What can I do with my qualification once I graduate?
  • Does the university have support services I can access (study, social, health, and career)?
  • What are the university’s policies around flexibility, online study, etc.?
  • At the end of the day, what do I feel is the right choice for me?

If you want to find out more, you can read about university and study on our website here.

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