Six New Zealand universities have slipped and two have improved in a global league table of the top 1000 universities
Universities New Zealand, which represents the eight institutions, said the result was a warning sign for the government.
Only Waikato and Lincoln universities improved their standings in the QS World University Rankings.
Waikato rose 18 places to 274 and Lincoln University climbed two spots to 317.
The University of Auckland slipped three places to 85th, Otago fell 24 places to 175, Victoria dropped to 221, Canterbury to 230, Massey to 330 and AUT to 464.
The QS rankings said all eight New Zealand universities scored worse than last year on the number of students per academic staff member, seven had worse scores for their reputation with academics around the world and six had worse scores for their reputation with employers.
However, seven of the universities had better scores for their enrolment of international students, and six had better scores for the number of times their researchers' work was cited by other academics.
University of Waikato vice-chancellor Neil Quigley said research citations were a major factor in the university's improvement, and it was placed 92nd for that measurement alone.
He said the higher overall ranking followed improvement in another ranking system, the Times Higher Education league table earlier this year, and could result in increased enrolments by foreign and domestic students.
"We traditionally have found international students are interested in these rankings, but increasingly we're finding domestic students are quite attuned to the rankings and what they're telling them about each of the New Zealand universities as well, Professor Quigley said.
"Our global rankings have been going up for the last few years and this year our enrolments at the University of Waikato are up about 3.5 percent overall. So we think the two are related and hopefully as people understand some more about this latest ranking, that will help us with enrolments for next year as well."
Rankings 'important to New Zealand'
Universities New Zealand director Chris Whelan said the rankings were an important bellwether for the government to pay attention to.
He said none of the New Zealand universities had worse overall scores in the QS system, but their rankings had changed because other universities were doing better.
"Because other countries are investing more in their university systems, some of their individual universities are going up faster than ours are," he said.
Mr Whelan said that was important because international students used the various league tables to inform their choice of university, as did foreign academics considering where to work.
"It's pretty important to New Zealand. International education is one of our biggest export markets, it's generating about $4 billion a year. Our ability to be able to generate that depends very much on our international rankings," he said.
Mr Whelan said New Zealand universities' per-student funding was 97 percent of the OECD average and about 27 percent lower than in Australia.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) topped the latest QS rankings, followed by Stanford, Harvard, Caltech, the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge.
ETH Zurich in Switzerland was the top-ranked institution outside the USA and UK at 7th place, followed by the National University of Singapore at 11th.
QS World University Rankings (compared to previous ranking):
- The University of Auckland 85 (previous ranking 82=)
- University of Otago 175= (151)
- Victoria University of Wellington 221= (219)
- University of Canterbury 231= (214)
- University of Waikato 274 (292)
- Lincoln University 317= (319=)
- Massey University 332= (316=)
- Auckland University of Technology 464= (441-450)
Read more on the QS World University Rankings website.