by Sean Gallagher
American institutions continue to dominate Shanghai rankings, led the small news item in The Chronicle of Higher Education last week. It reported that Harvard remained in first place and that all but two of the top 10 institutions were in the US. At 127 words, the Chronicle's coverage of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities appeared to be complete.
Certainly, if looking at the top 10, the story is barely newsworthy. Nothing has changed since 2003. But beyond that, the ARWU reveals a more interesting tale of fortunes won and lost.
Since 2003, the greatest volatility in rankings has been in the US and China. Ironically, the performances of these countries reveal an important lesson Australian universities already know but are in danger of losing. Fundamental to our research success has been a delicately balanced policy tango between research funding and international students.
The US continues to be the world's powerhouse for research, with the number of universities in the world's top 200 remaining constant since 2003, at about 90. But at the same time there has been a substantial slide in the average performance of all US universities in the 201-500 world rank, with 19 disappearing from the top 500 places altogether. In particular, the research performance of well-established public universities in smaller and middle-sized American states has become less competitive.
On the other hand, China's performance has been meteoric. Almost every US university that dropped off the list has been replaced by a Chinese institution, such that 23 mainland Chinese research universities now make the top 500, up from only nine in 2003. Tsinghua University leads the Chinese pack in the 151-200 world rank.
During this time, Australia boosted its ARWU representation from 13 universities to 19. With four universities in the top 100, or 19 in the top 500, Australia is home to roughly 4 per cent of the best research universities on the planet. Not bad for a country that boasts only a 1.2 per cent share of global gross domestic product and a 0.3 per cent share of global population.
But how do we ensure this is not our zenith?
In all three countries, funding for scientific research increased at least 50 per cent during the past eight years. Yet only China's ARWU performance is explained by this funding boost because Chinese policy distributes a significant proportion of research investment directly to the 39 leading universities across the sector.
In the US, however, research funding during this time became increasingly concentrated in the top research universities and more diluted at the bottom. In Australia, generous funding injections in the 2000s had to make up for several years of decreases in the 1990s.
Of course, it takes less research funding for a university to move into the top 500 than it does to move from 400 to 200, or from 20 to 10. But there's more to the story than just funding.
Despite government policy that does not concentrate funding in an elite few institutions, from 1992 to 2008 the Group of Eight universities increased their share of Australian Research Council funding from 66.9 per cent to almost 70 per cent.
A second federal policy is needed to explain Australia's ARWU performance. The opening up of our borders to international students two decades ago has allowed Australian universities, especially non-Go8 universities, to exploit these lucrative overseas export markets and cross-fund indigenous research programs.
In contrast, American public universities have not had the luxury of making up for significant losses in state government funding with overseas students. These US institutions have been further hamstrung by having to become volume education businesses for local students just to make up for state government revenue shortfalls. With all academic hands required on deck to teach, research performance at many US public universities, particularly in the 201-500 world rank, is suffering.
This is a policy crossroad that Australia could face with deregulation of load and degree attainment targets.
With its strong science and technology focus, the ARWU is arguably the most important global league table for comparing the 21st-century relevance of universities. Not only does ARWU measure improvements in quality of life - from better drugs to new technologies - but also in solving big global challenges such as food, energy, water, and global growth.
The research success of almost all Australian universities reaching the ARWU top 500 has been dependent on the de facto policy coupling of increased research funding and international student fee revenue.
For the first time Australia has three technology universities in the world's top 500: Swinburne University of Technology, University Technology, Sydney and Curtin University. This is a remarkable outcome and an important signpost for the 21st-century trajectory of Australian research.
Many US state governments from New York to California have listened to their public universities on the benefits of the Australian policy setting and are starting to welcome international undergraduate students by the thousands, helping to cross-subsidise research programs.
To maintain Australia's research momentum, our ailing international student market must be revived to ensure the successful Australian policy tango does not misstep.