Rankings results show ‘risks posed by HE cuts plan’

The threat from Chinese universities to Australian universities' standing in international rankings, demonstrated in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, has led to claims that a planned AU$2.8 billion (US$2.2 billion) government cut to universities’ funding will weaken their competitiveness internationally.

Australia’s top eight universities on balance held their own in the Times Higher Education or THE ranking, released on Tuesday, despite five of them dropping places. Their slide was compensated for by the University of Western Australia and the University of Adelaide jumping 14 and eight places respectively and, at the top end, the University of Melbourne moving up one place to 32nd.

Australia had six universities in the THE top 100. The University of Melbourne scored the top spot with an overall ranking of 32, followed by the Australian National University at 48 and the University of Sydney at 61. But China has two of its universities ahead of all the Australian universities with Peking University ranked at 27 and Tsinghua University at 30.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said the nation’s standing in global university rankings faced growing competition from a rising Chinese university system that was being powered by government investment. Robinson said this highlighted the dangers of a proposed AU$2.8 billion government cut to university funding.

“The rankings influence where international students choose to study – and our strong rankings in recent years have helped to generate a record AU$23 billion (US$18 billion) a year in export income for Australia,” she said.

Legislation to impose the AU$2.8 billion cut in federal spending on universities and their students was due to be debated in the House of Representatives last week. This legislation will apply a new 'efficiency dividend' to universities, increase student fees by 7.5% and slash the student loan repayment threshold from an annual salary of AU$55,874 to AU$42,000.

Robinson’s comments were echoed in a statement by the THE analysts who said that the performance of Australian universities could suffer if the government’s planned cuts were applied.

Robinson said that while Australia’s performance remained “stellar compared with other nations, the latest rankings had some ominous signs”.

“The strategy of investing heavily in higher education is paying off for a number of our Asian neighbours – with universities in mainland China and Hong Kong challenging the position of Australia’s universities in these rankings," she said. “This should be a warning sign. While global rankings have their limitations in what they tell us, there is no doubt they influence international students making decisions about where to study."

Robinson said there was a “bitter irony” in the THE rankings being published in the week that the federal parliament was considering the AU$2.8 billion cut to university funding.

"Coming on top of almost AU$4 billion that has been stripped from universities and their students over the past six years, the proposed further cuts will weaken Australia’s great university system. Smart nations understand that public funding in universities is an investment in long-term national prosperity. Ultimately, they will be the winners in the fierce race for global opportunities.”

Strong competitor

Robinson said it was clear that China was becoming an increasingly strong competitor – which the THE rankings analysts attributed to its “high and sustained levels of state funding”. She said China was building the equivalent of almost a new university every week.

Australian Education Minister Simon Birmingham has previously said that university funding would continue to grow under the government's changes, but at a slower pace.

"Taxpayer funding for universities has been a river of gold, growing at twice the rate of the economy since 2009," he said. "Our reforms still see university teaching revenue grow by a further 23% over the next four years and will ensure the ongoing viability of generous higher education funding and access."

Among the top eight Australian universities, the University of Melbourne moved up one place to 32nd in the THE rankings, Australian National University was down one at 48th, the University of Sydney dropped one to 61st, the University of Queensland dropped five to 65th, Monash University dropped six to joint 80th, the University of New South Wales dropped seven to 85th, the University of Western Australia jumped 14 places to 111th, and the University of Adelaide rose eight places to joint 134.