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Ranking: Australia’s higher education system world-class

A new world ranking for higher education systems places Australia eighth, with a high output in graduates and research despite a low input of resources. But the lead analyst, University of Melbourne professor Ross Williams, has warned that without more government investment in research, Australia may not do as well in years to come.

The ranking of 48 countries, for the Universitas 21 group of 24 local and international institutions shows the US, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland and Norway lead Australia, with The Netherlands and Britain in 9th and 10th positions.

“I think that Australia ought to be doing as well as the Nordic countries and Canada,” Professor Williams said. “I think it may well fall down the rankings unless there is greater emphasis placed on government funding, especially for research.”

The analysis shows performance on four broad criteria, as well as assigning an overall ranking. Australia ranks fourth for international connectivity, boosted by its large numbers of overseas students.

It is seventh for output — which includes research papers, enrolments and the proportion of those older than 24 years with a tertiary qualification — and seventh on environment measures. Included in the latter are factors such as the quality of the policy and regulatory environment and higher education data and the proportion of female students.

But Australia is 19th on resources, a range of measures of government and private expenditure on tertiary education. Professor Williams said there was comfort in the fact that “even though the resources are down the list in terms of the rankings, the overall performance is in the top eight so the system has high productivity with low resources”.

He said Universitas 21, whose Australian members are Melbourne, the University of Queensland and the University of NSW, had identified a gap in the highly contested global rankings market. Rankings of individual universities produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong and others did not “shed any light on the broader picture of how well a nation’s system educates its students, the environment it provides for encouraging and supporting excellence”.

“It’s the system as a whole which is catering to a diverse range of people, which really matters for national economic development,” Professor Williams said. “(International) students choose countries to study in as much as individual institutions, and (this) ranking offers clear data to support decision-making.”

Despite the strong performance of the Nordic countries, Britain and Canada were Australia’s main competitors, he said: “The Nordic countries are really non-competitive in terms of students because of the language issue, although they are increasingly teaching in English.” Griffith University’s deputy director of research policy and rankings expert Tony Sheil called the analysis a “quality piece of work”.

“Australia performs well as an internationally connected and well-regulated nation with strong research and student participation outcomes, achieved in spite of a low per capita resource base,” he said. He noted that the data tended to be two or three years old and could not take account of factors such as the rise in the Australian dollar.

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