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Rankings and league tables: they matter, or do they?

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Jane Hunter, Senior Lecturer: Postdoctoral Researcher in STEM Education – School of Education, University of Technology, Sydney

Dr. Jane Hunter, our speaker at EduTECH Asia says “Everyone loves a good league table in the higher education sector … or do they? I guess the glow that a ranking emits all depends on where your institution appears on the list.”

Last Thursday in “The Age” newspaper education editor Henrietta Cook reported that six Australian universities finished in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education world university rankings.

Phil Baty, editor of the world university rankings stated that the “higher education superpower of Asia” is something that Australian universities need to watch out for – there are four Asian institutions from Hong Kong, South Korea and China that are positioned in the top 200, while China has two universities in the top 40 universities. He argues: “more of Asia’s leading universities are soaring to join the world’s elite tertiary education institutions”.

This list is always one to watch and its release follows interesting commentary over the past 12 months in online discussion and reportage in Australian media of just how highly valued university education remains around the world and never more so than in Asia.

Dr Catherine Gomes from the RMIT University concluded in a lengthy contribution to “The Conversation” in July: “Asian students and their families value quality education. Eventually they will look to universities that have globally recognized quality brands, which would help students with their own professional mobility”.

She invites consideration that a way for Australia to stay competitive:  “would be through research collaborations and partnerships with Asian institutions. If traditional and emerging markets are competing for students, it is imperative that strong research and teaching links be formed between universities from both sides of the divide. One aspect of this discussion policymakers might want to consider is becoming host to satellite campuses from world-renowned universities”.

In conclusion, Dr Gomes suggests: “having top Asian universities set up campuses in Australia promotes increased flows of top students and staff. This would help strengthen Australia’s position in the region as a high-quality education hub”.

Such ideas are certainly important as the number of Australian universities who work to intensify and grow these kinds of research and hub opportunities increases.

In her 2015 (2nd edition) book Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: the Battle for World Class Excellence, Professor Ellen Hazelkorn, distinguished higher education policy scholar from Ireland, is critical.  She proposes that in many countries, governments and institutions have pursued world class university designation without sufficient consideration of the implications – she notes that making plans along these lines into the future is based effectively ‘on a moving methodological target’.

Her key message is that more attention needs to be paid to measuring the outcomes of higher education. Professor Hazelkorn quotes William Locke, Assistant Director from The Open University, who is managing an international project on the changing academic profession offers: “all things wrong with the rankings matter considerably less than the fact the rankings matter”.

In her talk at EduTECHAsia Dr Hunter will share more of this fascinating and timely debate in Technology, league tables and funding: Impacts on innovation in higher education or is it time to change our practices?

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