8 May 2015

Universities' plan to boost world rankings

11:12 am on 8 May 2015

Universities could get a leg-up in international league tables through closer links with the Government's Crown Research Institutes.

Victoria and Otago (above) universities are in the process of leaving the Union of Students Associations.

Universities including Otago (above) are ranked on criteria such as academics' research. Photo: 123RF

An Education and Science Select Committee paper says New Zealand universities are suffering in the rankings because of a perceived lack of high-level research.

The three main rankings are the QS, Times Higher Education, and Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) and they place most New Zealand institutions in the top 400 or 500 in the world.

The University of Auckland is the highest ranked New Zealand university in each of the league tables, reaching 92nd in the QS ranking, 175th in the Times Higher Education, and placed in the 201-300 group in the ARWU.

The select committee said the Tertiary Education Commission had told it closer relations with CRIs could improve the situation.

The idea is to count CRI research as university research in the rankings, which are important for attracting international students.

The Tertiary Education Commission said the suggestion had come from the university sector and was worth thinking about, though it was not itself working on any proposal.

Rankings driven by research

Universities New Zealand director Chris Whelan said universities would certainly like closer ties with Crown Research Institutes because that would be good for science, as well as for the universities' rankings.

"Rankings are largely driven by research and research reputation, so the more good research that we can associate with universities, the higher our rankings, so absolutely we're very keen to see as many links with CRIs strengthened and grown as possible because it has a whole lot of downstream benefits."

Mr Whelan said trying to count CRI research as university research was not cheating.

University of Auckland

The University of Auckland is the highest ranked New Zealand university in three league tables. Photo: 123RF

He said most other countries linked universities with research organisations in ways that improved the universities' rankings, and there were already real links between New Zealand universities and CRIs.

"Perhaps in the past as a country we've been a little bit too honest about not counting those things," he said.

"Just a year ago, CRIs were doing joint supervision of 337 university PhD students, there were hundreds of CRI researchers that were actually teaching in university progammes. We should be able to count those sorts of contributions towards our international rankings."

However, Tertiary Education Union president Sandra Grey said the suggestion did not address New Zealand's biggest handicap in the rankings.

"It's missing the whole point, which is New Zealand suffers internationally in international rankings because of low levels of investment. Low levels of investment in universities, but low levels of investment in research and development overall, actually."

Ms Grey said universities were wasting too much energy trying on the international league tables.

"It's another gaming of a system we shouldn't take as seriously as we do. As long as we don't slip suddenly to 10,000 on the list, we shouldn't be looking at them and saying 'let's to do every thing we can to keep moving up one or two places'. Often what we're talking about is a movement of 10 places in a ranking system that has 500 universities."

Science New Zealand is the peak body for the Crown Research Institutes. Its chief executive, Anthony Scott, said co-operation between CRIs and universities was growing, but they needed to maintain their separate identities.

"We're working very closely, and I think that's the way of the future because it improves the research outputs and the quality for New Zealand, but we have to bear in mind as well that the CRIs and universities are set up to do different things for New Zealand and there is benefit in retaining the distinctive nature of what it is that we do."