Sunday, January 10, 2021

New global ranking system shows Australian universities are ahead of the pack

Whether it’s purchasing power parity or the Happiness Index, global comparisons require benchmarking. Sport does this well with World Cups and the Olympics, or better still the single ranking familiar to tennis and golf aficionados.

The problem with universities is there are around a dozen rankings. Each is a variable mix of research, reputation and teaching metrics, leading to quite different and confusing results.

University rankings certainly have their critics, who point to the potential to mislead students and distort research priorities. Our newly developed Aggregate Ranking of Top Universities (ARTU) overcomes the flaws of singling out performance in any one ranking.

Read more: Beyond the black hole of global university rankings: rediscovering the true value of knowledge and ideas
Join 130,000 people who subscribe to free evidence-based news.

This aggregated ranking helps to broaden the range of assessment — from research citations (frequency referred to in the academic literature) and impact, through to reputation, and qualitative as well as quantitative measures. It also helps address the inherent imperfections of any one of the individual ranking systems, when seen on their own.

The ARTU orders universities by cumulative performance over the mainstream scoring systems. Condensing the three most influential — the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Times Higher Education (THE) and Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) — gives a single broad overview of a university’s position.

How does Australia fare?

Australia now has 13 universities in the global top 200. That’s an increase from just eight two years ago.

Australia ranks fourth in the world in 2020, after the US, UK and Germany. Indeed per head of population, Australia is well ahead of these nations, and second behind the Netherlands for nations of more than 10 million.

This is no new entrant fluke, as Australia has seven universities in the top 100. That’s 7% of the best universities for 0.3% of the world’s population (or 1.6% of global GDP). Two Australian institutions, Monash and UNSW, are among the five that jumped more than 20 places within the top 100 between 2012 and 2020.

Asia on the rise

Although rankings are compiled annually, performance is a lagging indicator assessed over several years. For instance, research citations can be judged between five to 11 years later.

On the one hand, this should help cushion our pandemic-affected universities from precipitous falls over the next few years. On the other, it conspires against rapid rises up the global ladder.

This makes the ascendancy of East Asian universities, and in particular those from China, all the more remarkable. The top two Chinese universities now come in at 18th and 27th internationally, ahead of Australia’s lead, the University of Melbourne at 29th. The next four Chinese universities have risen more than 100 spots since 2012 to crack the top 75. This is especially impressive given that research is largely judged on English-language outputs.

Australia has fared well in this battle of the old versus new order. Long-established universities benefit from major endowments, philanthropy and long-run reputation. Australia’s universities in the top 200 have an average age of 78, compared to over two centuries for overseas unis in top 200.

China has this disadvantage too. But China does have the benefit of a booming economy, which drives top-down investment in cutting-edge technologies and academic excellence through STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) research at scale.

A measure of the value of international students

It can be argued that Australian universities thrived on the back of 28 years of growth, a desirable location, political stability and relatively open borders to knowledge-based entrants. But the standout contribution has been from international students. In absolute terms universities in Australia have the second-highest number after the US.

Simply put, the margin between international and domestic student income covers the indirect costs of strategic investment in research, teaching and other areas. Australian universities need to raise around an additional dollar in support and infrastructure spending for every dollar won in grant income. And all this while fulfilling the core mission of educating local students, with 43% of 25-to-34-year-olds now having a bachelor degree, up from 34% in 2010.

But coronavirus has laid bare the Achilles heel in this business model. Closed borders and geopolitical shifts have delivered a major blow to cross-subsidisation, as well as to the international collaboration so crucial for team-based research addressing the world’s grand challenges.

Vaccines now offer some light at the end of the tunnel, but it will be many years before the world resembles its former self, if ever. Trust in science and an R&D-led economy argue for a major role for universities in the recovery from COVID-19. But the only certainty is uncertainty.

So expect considerable volatility in higher education. How well our universities stack up will depend in part on how international competitors fare, and in particular their relative economies and resourcefulness. Australia looks well positioned here, but will need to weather the threats posed by contraction, domestic constraints and a challenging business model.

Rankings are not perfect. They do not assess all aspects of the mission of Australian universities and are rightly subject to criticism, often from institutions not doing so well. But rankings are the best surrogate measure of global standing that we have and they are here to stay, whether we like them or loathe them.

As the aggregate scoreboard for top universities around the globe, ARTU is well placed to track the shake-up from COVID-19 as it plays out in our universities over the next five to ten years.

Victorian Liberals confront Bernie Finn over pro-Trump social media posts

The Victorian Liberal Party says it will confront one of its controversial upper house MPs over pro-Trump conspiracy theories he shared on social media while rioters stormed the US Capitol in Washington on Thursday.

David Davis, the Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, said he "fundamentally" disagreed with his colleague Bernie Finn, and that his posts on his private Facebook page were "wrong".

Mr Finn, who is also the opposition whip in the upper house, attracted criticism from some members of the Liberal Party after he shared several pro-Trump posts in the lead up, during and after the riots in Washington.

Mr Davis did not go as far as condemning Mr Finn, but said the Liberal Party would "certainly be talking to" him about his comments. He was asked what action the party would take against Mr Finn, but did not answer.

"I don't know why Bernie has made those comments," Mr Davis said.

"My view is that they are wrong, I think that the election result is very clear and I think the fact is that there's been a series of terrible events in America in this recent period, and I think the community is horrified by what they've seen.

"People are allowed to speak, but, having said that, I think it's incumbent on us to say when we think they're wrong."

On Wednesday evening, before the violence had erupted, Mr Finn shared a lengthy post reiterating false claims of election fraud and wrote that US President Donald Trump had "set a wonderful example to every other national leader by putting America first".

"Within the next 12 hours, Donald J. Trump will make history for one of two reasons: 1) He will fight off a concerted effort by globalists, big corporations, big media, the Washington Establishment and the mad Left to improperly remove him from the Oval Office," Mr Finn said.

"Or, 2) He will succumb to the aforementioned Deep State forces - but not before exposing the massive corruption undermining the American political system."

As rioters tore through the Capitol, Mr Finn shared an image of former US president Ronald Reagan and an excerpt of one of his speeches.

"The people of the United States would be well advised to remember these words of a very wise man and great president," Mr Finn wrote.

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction," the excerpt of Reagan's speech began. "We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free."

On Thursday afternoon, Mr Finn also shared an article to his private Facebook page from the conservative news website Washington Times that claimed a facial recognition technology company had identified members of far-left group Antifa who had "infiltrated Trump protesters who stormed Capitol".

In the post, Mr Finn wrote: "This shouldn't surprise anyone. This is far more Antifa than Trump."

The Washington Times has since issued a correction to its news article to state the technology "did not identify any Antifa members".

COVID: The difference between Australia and the rest of the world

NSW Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly has started his coronavirus update by constrasting the situation in Australia with the rest of the world.

There have been 750,000 fresh coronavirus cases worldwide over the past 24 hours, Professor Kelly says. In Australia, seven of eight jursidictions have recorded no new local cases today (NSW reported three).

There were 1000 deaths in the UK on Saturday and 4000 in the US.

"My sister lives in a small village in northern Italy," Professor Kelly said.

"I was speaking to her yesterday, or had texts from her yesterday, where she was talking about the church in her small village: the bells are tolling for deaths almost every day and almost the whole day, just in a small village in Italy."

He added: "That's what the situation is out there in the world right now. In Australia, we're doing much better than that."

The Chief Medical Officer has praised high testing rates across Australia reported on Sunday.

NSW and Victoria both reported more than 23,000 tests, and Queensland reported more than 19,000 tests.

"Over 73,000 tests really is extraordinary," he said.

"Hats off to everyone involved with that, including the community, but also the people who are putting themselves on the frontliine there to take those tests, those that are working absolutely full-time and right through the night sometimes in the laboratories to get that crucial information to guide our public health."

Lockdown demands were wrong: Sydney shows how to fight COVID-19

Peter Collignon, Professor of infectious diseases

COVID-19 is and should remain a major concern to all of us. Thankfully in Australia, by any global comparison we currently have little, and in many areas zero, community transmission. There are many things we have done very successfully to decrease our risk of spreading this infection.

What we do, however, needs to be proportionate to the risk at the time. Too often, panic and isolationism seem to be playing major parts in headlines, opinions and decision making.

Many prominent individuals made dire predictions about what might happen in Australia. Most of these have been wrong, including recent warnings that Christmas and New Year's would be super-spreading events in Sydney if we did not apply a citywide lockdown.

Currently, there are three COVID-19 clusters in Australia from recently introduced strains. The Avalon cluster, which started in early December and had more than 140 cases, now appears to be extinguishing. The more recent Berala cluster with over 20 cases is also waning. In Melbourne, a cluster associated with a restaurant with more than 30 cases appears to be well-controlled.

These successes show current interventions and advice from health departments in NSW and Victoria have been effective at stopping spread without the total lockdowns many advocated.

Saturday January 9: NSW has recorded one new locally transmitted case of COVID-19 linked to the Berala cluster.

Despite some infected visitors from both Melbourne and Sydney, there has been no transmission of COVID-19 within regional NSW (population three million). Brisbane has just gone into a surprising lockdown after only a single new case associated with a quarantine hotel leak.

If we look at past outbreaks in Australia - Adelaide, Logan in Brisbane, Sydney's Crossroads Hotel - they, like the current clusters, have all been controlled by a combination of good testing, contact tracing, quarantining of close contacts and limits on the size of indoor events.

Melbourne's devastating second wave last winter was our major exception, but many important factors were poorly managed and these have now been markedly improved.

Why, then, is there now such a sense of panic that COVID-19 will spiral out of control? We have a very good track record of success in Australia with good testing and contact tracing. Additionally, in summer transmission risks are substantially lower than in winter.

Some restrictions seem very inappropriate. Despite no recent community transmission of COVID-19 in regional NSW, some states (Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia) have shut borders.

If they do cross the border, many people will spend two weeks in hotel quarantine as if they had come from high-prevalence regions such as Europe. Their actual risk of being infected must be less than one in a million. So why treat them as being high-risk?

We need to be careful not to overreact or catastrophise. Our track record, particularly responses of the NSW government, shows spread can be controlled. This control was achieved while still giving the vast majority of people in Sydney and NSW mobility, as well as economic and social engagement.

Frequent dire predictions that end up being wrong don't help. We need to be alert but to markedly decrease some of the associated panic. COVID-19 and its risks will be with us for at least another year or two. We need health advice and interventions to be consistent, predictable and sustainable.




1 comment:

Paul said...

The Washington Post lies almost as openly and blatantly as the Jew York Times, so I don't know how their political self-censorship becomes authoritative.