The release of this year’s QS World University Rankings was met with mixed reaction in New Zealand.

The ‘glass half full’ camp chose to take pride in the fact that despite a dip in rankings, the universities’ scores remained largely the same or better, and furthermore, with Lincoln University’s inclusion, our little country’s eight universities all hold a place in the top 500.

However, it was the collective slide in rankings that has many concerned about the quality of New Zealand’s universities, or more accurately, the level of funding driving that quality.

Rankings on the slide

The 2013/2014 QS rankings saw the University of Auckland slip from 83rd to 94th position; the University of Otago from 133rd to 155th; the University of Canterbury from 221st to 238th; Victoria University of Wellington from 237th to 265th equal; Massey University from 308th to 343rd equal; University of Waikato from 374th to 401st–410th; and AUT from 451st–460th to 471st–480th (those ranked over 400 are placed in groups of 10). Lincoln University debuted at 481st equal.

Casting the cynical view aside for a moment, it is certainly laudable that all eight New Zealand tertiary institutions have made the top 500.

“With Lincoln University on the list, it means all eight of New Zealand’s universities are now in the top 500, and I doubt if there are very many countries – if any – that could claim to have all their universities on that list,” Universities New Zealand chairman Professor Roy Crawford told the Herald.

However, Lincoln’s inclusion does little to detract from how New Zealand universities are competing with their overseas counterparts.

Closer inspection of the QS results shows that many of New Zealand’s universities are actually maintaining or increasing their scores. However, universities in other countries – notably Asian countries – are increasing their scores at greater rates, forcing New Zealand universities to slip down the rankings.

“On the plus side, it is the first time that all eight New Zealand universities are ranked in the top 500 in the world. On the other hand, some universities have had their scores improve but their rankings decline,” said Tertiary Education Minister, Steven Joyce.

“Overall the rankings reflect the increased competitiveness of the international university market.”

Crawford agrees. He said New Zealand universities’ slide was more the result of other tertiary institutions making big strides forward rather than our universities deteriorating.

Why aren’t New Zealand universities keeping up?

Ben Sowter, head of research at QS, said this year’s results showed that New Zealand’s universities had collectively seen a drop in academic reputation, faculty student ratio, and international students.

According to Tertiary Education Union (TEU) vice president, Sandra Grey, in New Zealand staff/student ratios have risen from 17.5 students per academic in 2007 to 19 students per academic in 2012.

“We are moving in the wrong direction,” she says. “New Zealand academics are highly regarded and are involved in world class research and teaching. But falling government funding means they face larger lectures and tutorials, more administrative workload that takes time away from research and teaching, and stagnant pay.”

While Grey acknowledges that the international competition is fierce, she is scathing about recent levels of government funding for tertiary education in New Zealand.

“With more universities, and particularly, more East Asian universities, spending large amounts of money to increase their research, quality, and reputation, it is no easy task for New Zealand universities to hold their place. But that task is made near impossible by a Government that has cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of tertiary education in the last five years.”

University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor and Professor Stuart McCutcheon told One News that New Zealand’s universities operate with the lowest income and expenditure per student of any of the top universities in the world – and the rankings reflect this.

“What we seem to have tried to do in this country is have low student fees, low levels of Government investment, low levels of research funding nationally, and high numbers of students in universities. We have to decide in this country whether we want cheap universities or whether we want highly ranked universities because I think it’s very clear … you can’t have both.”

Meanwhile, Minister Steven Joyce points out that the Government has increased its investment in universities by 16.5 per cent over the past four years and student fees are increasing. However, he does concede that a significant increase in investment into New Zealand universities is unlikely.

“As a country, we are not likely to be able to afford sudden big increases in resources, so the challenge for New Zealand universities from these figures will be to respond more quickly and effectively to the competitive challenges they face. That includes attracting more international students, expanding research links, and investing more in disciplines where they have a competitive advantage.”

However, some are sceptical whether New Zealand can attract more international students when rankings are falling.

“The Government has a goal of doubling the number of international students and the revenues that New Zealand generates from that export education industry. But it simply isn’t going to achieve that if we’re in a situation where the rankings of the universities continue to decline,” says McCutcheon.

Rising student fees are also increasing the annual incomes of New Zealand’s universities. However, Ben Sowter of QS says increasing tuition fees are becoming a growing concern for universities around the globe.

“Tuition fee hikes and student debt are becoming a growing concern for both students and the New Zealand Government. The decline in affordable publicly funded education worldwide means many students risk being priced out of a world-class education,” said Sowter.

It’s not just New Zealand; the QS results revealed that the average undergraduate tuition fees in the top 10 are up to a record high of around US$34,000 per year, nearly double the 2007 average of US$18,500. QS researchers say austerity measures in the wake of the recession have contributed to an “affordability crisis” for students at leading international institutions.

What are university ranking systems?

The QS World University Rankings is one of three major university ranking systems, the other two being the Times Higher Education (THE) rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) or ‘Shanghai Ranking’ as it is better known.

They all measure universities in different ways and based on different things. QS place more emphasis on information derived from surveys, while THE looks closer at teaching quality and Shanghai focuses on the standard of research.

Unsurprisingly, the universities emerge in different orders on each ranking list, although the usual suspects – among them, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Cambridge, and Oxford – appear on the top 10 of all three lists.

In the latest Shanghai ranking, the universities of Auckland and Otago rank in the 201-300 grouping, while Massey, Canterbury, and Victoria all rank in the 401-500 grouping, a relatively static placement for all five. Waikato, AUT, and Lincoln do not appear to have ever made these rankings.

Meanwhile, the recent THE rankings for 2013/2014, released in October, saw the University of Auckland placed at 164th (a slight drop from 161st the year before) with Otago, Victoria, Canterbury, and Waikato lagging some way behind. Massey had dropped off the THE charts and neither AUT nor Lincoln appear to have ever made these rankings.

Between 2004 and 2008, the QS and THE rankings were one and the same, before THE broke away to form its own tables.

The QS Rankings currently considers over 2000 institutions and ranks over 800. The rankings are made up of six indicators: academic reputation (40 per cent), employer reputation (10 per cent), faculty/student ratio (20 per cent), citations per faculty (20 per cent), international students (5 per cent), and international faculty (5 per cent). This year, 62,094 academic and 27,957 employer responses contributed towards the results.

Meanwhile, the THE performance indicators judge universities across the core missions of teaching, research, knowledge transfer, and international outlook.

The Shanghai Ranking, which originated in 2003 with Chinese Government backing, was designed to provide a global benchmark against which Chinese universities could assess their progress. With a focus on Chinese universities’ need to catch up on scientific research, the Shanghai Ranking system relies largely on performance indicators such as the number of articles published in prestigious academic journals, rather than teaching quality or other factors.

Each ranking has its particular audience. QS aims its rankings primarily at students, while others are focused more at university leadership. Any list only highlights a small percentage of the world’s universities, and as a result, many institutions, particularly in developing countries, are at a distinct disadvantage.

Online correspondent, Igram Mahmud, states, “The whole ranking system should be abolished until the whole world gets developed. Newer universities can never beat the top hundred with the current ranking system. With this ranking, these top ones suck all merits in the world and the equal balance of merit distribution never happens.”

Incidentally, the QS and THE rankings both have a separate section on newer universities, ranking those under 50 years old. The measures are typically similar to those used to score all universities, but generally with less weight given to subjective indicators of academic reputation.

Do rankings matter?

Like them or not, global university rankings look set to stay. Not only that, they appear to be playing an increasing role in influencing students, universities, and governments.

For example, the Brazilian Government’s national scholarship programme, Science Without Borders, aims to send 100,000 students and researchers to some of the world’s best institutions, selected based on their position in the QS and THE rankings. Similarly, India’s University Grants Commission also requires any foreign university wanting to partner with Indian universities to be ranked among the top 500 in the world.

The rankings are also impacting the recruitment of academics and researchers in many countries. Denmark and the Netherlands are among those countries to have changed their immigration laws to favour those who have graduated from top global universities. In points based systems, graduates from the highest ranked universities in the QS, THE, and Shanghai Rankings are awarded more points. Russia now recognises degrees from foreign universities that are among the top 300 in these rankings.

The rankings are also affecting the way universities operate, with many now operating in accordance to rankings performance indicators. Following an independent audit in Russia,

15 universities were selected to receive special grants to improve their compliance with rankings criteria. Similarly, Germany, France, Japan, and Singapore are also seeking to improve their higher education systems based on global ranking systems.

Looking forward

In New Zealand, the pressure continues for more investment to improve the rankings of its own universities. The Government is currently seeking feedback on the draft Tertiary Education Strategy 2014–2019, which guides the Tertiary Education Commission’s investment decisions.

The draft strategy document discusses the climate of international competition, particularly from developing countries across Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, which are investing heavily into tertiary education and increasing the international demand for academic research and teaching talent.

“New Zealand tertiary education organisations (TEOs) need to further lift their efficiency and competitiveness to maintain and enhance their position in that race for talent,” the document states.

The document appears to place more emphasis on achieving efficiencies and finding a creative new delivery model than on increasing public investment.

While this may be to the dismay of many, it is certainly true that in the wake of a global financial crisis and the rise of technology and the internet, the ground underneath global tertiary education is shifting. Adapting to the changing environment is par for the course, and New Zealand universities need to prepare to do so without the windfall they need if they are to remain competitive.

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