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Australia: University boycotts rankings system

One of the world’s most influential institutions in marine and climate sciences has refused to take part in a major world ranking because of bias against small specialist universities. 

James Cook University in Townsville is thought to be the first Australian university to boycott the World University Rankings, which publishes an annual league table of the top 500 universities in the world. Vice-chancellor Sandra Harding said the use of broad-based reputation surveys of academics “jeopardised any ability to have confidence in their ranking”.

Although vilified by many in academe as a dubious measure of quality, university rankings are becoming increasingly influential. The University of Melbourne’s Simon Marginson, a world expert in the field, told a conference in Mexico City last week they had “become very potent”. “They create many losers and few winners,” he said. “But ranking drives real action in real time in many places. It determines policy and university strategy.” 

Professor Marginson told the university’s decision could disadvantage it in the global reputation game.

But Professor Harding said she was prepared to wear fallout from the decision. “One analysis of research citations (in 2010) placed JCU second in the world on climate change science, behind the Smithsonian Institute and ahead of NASA,” she said. JCU’s highly focused research endeavours in marine and environmental sciences worked against it, as did its location in Townsville.

She said people simply named “brand” universities, such as Harvard and Oxford, in reputation surveys.

Phil Baty, rankings editor for Times Higher Education, which runs the World University Ranking, has said previously the reputation survey is detrimental to all Australian institutions — even the highest ranking universities.

Professor Marginson said a problem with rankings was their research focus. “They tell us nothing about teaching, though they often guide decisions on where to be educated.”

Writing in today’s HES, Professor Harding says: “As individual institutions we are deeply complicit in this nonsense. I say enough.”

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