Australian universities: Winners of the academic power shift
As the new Times Higher Education rankings for 2012-2013 cause debate, we spoke with Elizabeth Gibney, Times Higher Education Science reporter, who told us more about what’s happening in the Asia-Pacific academic world and why Australian universities seemed to have been able to combine the best of two worlds.
Asian Universities seemed to have significantly improved their position in the latest rankings but it is still a small number comparatively (only 18 of the top 200 are Asian institutions). Do you think this trend is going to change in future years?
Absolutely, I think what we are seeing here is a lot of investment starting to pay off in Asian. It takes quite a long time for many of these indicators to start showing results. However, the rankings this year are the first hard evidence. What we see in the rankings is a rapid improvement and there is nothing to suggest that this trend is not going to continue. China, for example, has made the commitment to pay 4% of their increasing GDP into education.
There are additional factors such as research citations: Korea and China are producing a lot of research papers, but it is taking them a while to produce papers of higher quality and good citation scores. These are things that will come into play later, but we can see now the beginning of a trajectory.
Regarding those Asian countries with the strongest performance in the rankings, Singapore is the only country with degrees taught in English. China, Taiwan and Korea still have the great majority of their degrees taught in their local languages, do you think this might be a hindrance in the future for them, taking into account that English seems to be the language of academia around the world?
Well, often the research papers do have to be in English and 30% of this ranking is based on citations scores. So they don’t have to be in English but they have to be in the top rank academic journals which often are published in English language.
However, I think there is a shift happening anyway. As you mentioned, degrees in Singapore are completely taught in English. In China for instance there is a move to get more international professors and there is also a big move for collaborations between UK, US and Australian institutions with Chinese institutions. They are all setting up completely new universities with those collaborations, so they will have an element of teaching in English.
English is rapidly becoming the language of science and research, not that it should be, but science is now a global activity and collaborations need to happen across the world. In which case, if you want to be producing research that gets published in the best journals it is highly likely you will be doing it in English.
Looking at Australian universities, their performance in the rankings seems to have dramatically improved during the last 2 years, what are they doing differently?
Something that we need to take into account is that we have been using the same methodology in our rankings only during the last 2 years, which is the way to make the most reliable comparison. But it is true that Australian universities have lapped up this year, with the top G8 Australian universities improving their overall positions in the Top 200. Money has been a major factor: Australia plans to add AUS $ 5.4bn to Higher Education which will definitely have an effect.
The other thing to notice is Australia’s ability to make great use of its geographical position. I mentioned how much money is flying around in Australasia for education and research. As you mentioned, the G8 Australian Universities have very close links with the C9 group in China (leading universities in mainland China). They attend the C9 meeting every year now and other international collaborations such as Monash’s research centre in the India Institute of Technology in Delhi among other examples. The collaboration between Australia and Asia is very strong and has been building steadily, so I think there is a correlation between that and its position in the rankings.
University of Melbourne ranked 28th in the latest Times Higher Education Rankings
It seems that Australia’s internationalisation is increasing. How about international students coming in? Do you reckon they are also part of this process?
It all comes down to having an international culture: international collaboration is great wherever we find it, whether it is in research or in student exchange, it brings a different perspective to the institutions and allows the institution’s home students to meet a whole range of new people. Australia showcases great selling points: close tights to Asia, great funding, very good research size and overall, a good place to live and work at the moment.
Should international students base their university choice on these rankings?
Well, it is important to treat these rankings with a pinch of salt. Despite the slip of UK institutions on the rankings, they still have a strong presence in the rankings. 31 of the top 200 are UK universities. Although, outside of the very elite universities this can be seen as a slip, it is no cause for alarm, it’s a reflection of other universities catching up.
Rankings generally give you an idea of where the best research is at a global scale. It is important for institutions to be seen as portraying strong research links and reputation. But also, these rankings are great source of information for students, as they can help them to choose what it’s really right for them.
Aspiring journalist and Cambridge University graduate, Londoner 'by adoption'. Tweeting for @hotcourses_Abrd