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Ranking addiction: Time to rethink the habit? opinion

In a post-COVID world, how much do the global university rankings really contribute to the sector’s ongoing financial viability?

As we know only too well, COVID-19 has laid bare the reliance of some of our most eminent institutions upon international students (largely) from China, combined with the allied 485 visa, which has likely been key to students choosing Australia as their future study and migration destination.

COVID will eventually pass and international student numbers will again grow. However, it begs the question: will COVID really have been ‘a game changer’ for our sector, or will we simply slip back into the comfortable habits of the past two decades and once again rely heavily upon international student revenue?

Early warning signs

Ever since the turn of the century – combined with the collapse of, first, the IT bubble and later, the huge drop in international numbers in WA as the resources sector and postgraduate employment prospects tanked there – there have been alarm bells warning that international student growth numbers are, like stock market investment, a predictably risky business.

So, have our prestigious institutions’ leaders prepared adequately for this unsurprising turn of events? It seems not.

And you might suppose that a number of chancellors will be less than comfortable with the predicament their institutions are now enduring.

Cost-cutting

Amid the current flush of responses to COVID’s financial implications, the sector is largely responding to the pandemic by painfully reducing staffing costs and replacing physical lectures with cheaper podcast and online delivery modes.

Some are even seeking to continue online provision as a hybrid form of undergraduate engagement – even after COVID has been contained (The Australian, 16 December 2020).

Others, meanwhile, are dramatically reducing those academic discipline areas considered to be of low financial value.

Effectively, we are seeing the reduction of face-to-face delivery and the bringing forward of those cheaper internet-based modes long touted as the future of academic engagement.

We are also experiencing greater experimentation with, and development of, micro-credentialing approaches aimed at reaching those market sectors not usually able to directly access the offerings of our more prestigious institutions.

Is this sustainable?

Clearly, 2020 is the year we didn’t go to university. But how long will students be prepared to incur HECS debts or international full-fee charges for an increasingly off-campus university experience?

Regardless, online engagement remains the most likely and effective strategy for cost-effective program delivery during (and probably after) COVID running its course.

Interestingly, some of our private entities have long invested in developing teaching approaches using online provision effectively. They are now steadily gaining ground in respect to student satisfaction evaluations.

UBSS, for example, has concentrated upon student learning experiences, rather than utilising a financial model pursuing a research focus and ranking status. Its courses are, of course, priced according to the level of provision it provides and its QILT evaluations place it at an 83 per cent satisfaction level.

Without the heavy burden of supporting a research focus or running in the rankings race, UBSS and similar fully accredited, smaller private entities are fleet of foot and have adapted quickly to changing market needs.

With the market becoming more and more price sensitive, is this a model that others should follow?

Ranking for rankings sake

Australia proudly boasts (on a good day) 4 or 5 universities in the top 100 tier globally; almost all our universities are included in the calculations of the most recognised ranking systems.

We, quite rightly, love our top 100s. We are proud of their effective vaccines and contributions to knowledge. Arguably, as the most established ranking metrics generally only include between 1,000 and 1,500 universities considered as worthy of evaluation, being ranked at all will have put your institution into (roughly) the top 6 per cent of the 25,000 or so universities operating worldwide.

This is a fantastic achievement and a justifiable source of pride within our sector.

But what of the 94 per cent of other institutions in the world that fall outside the ranking auditors’ requirements? (And before you write them all off as second-rate performers or degree mills, consider that they include most universities in the Federation of Russia – population 144.5 million – and about 350 of Germany’s 400 universities. Neither of these nations are lacking in technological and intellectual advancement or quality.)

Consequently, breaking from the institutional peloton of Australian universities to 'make a dash for your own finishing line', as Swinburne’s VC Professor Quester proposed (Campus Review, 4 December 2020), may be just the approach needed for those Australian institutions unlikely to be able to sustainably or meaningfully afford the investments required to make it into the top 100 within the next few decades – if ever.

Perhaps we’ve reached a moment in time when some of our chancellors and VCs should reconsider the costs and viability of investing heavily in the ranking peloton. Instead, they could take a look at some of the advantageous business and delivery models offered by the global 94 per cent.

Emeritus Professor Jim Mienczakowski is currently a higher education consultant. Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is currently deputy vice chancellor at Group Colleges Australia.

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