How do Kiwi universities measure up on the global stage?

October 2014


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The positioning of New Zealand universities in the recently released 2014/2015 QS World University Rankings remains stable, however more investment is needed for our institutions to retain global competitiveness.


There were no major surprises in this year’s two major global university league tables – QS World University Rankings and Times Higher Education (THE) rankings – with most of New Zealand’s universities remaining at roughly the same ranking as last year.

In the QS rankings, The University of Auckland remains New Zealand’s only institution in the top 100, moving up two places from last year into 92nd position. The University of Otago comes in at 159th, down from 155th last year. University of Canterbury (242), Victoria University of Wellington (275=), and Massey University (346) are also slightly down on last year’s rankings, while University of Waikato (401-410) retains its position. Lincoln University has jumped some 70 places from 481-490 last year to 411-420 in this year’s rankings, while AUT fell just shy of the top 500.

Lincoln University Acting Vice-Chancellor Sheelagh Matear said the university was “very pleased” with the significant increase, particularly in the academic reputation and international students categories.

The QS rankings assess a number of different categories in the areas of research, teaching, employability, and internationalisation. Dissection of the results reveals varying strengths and weaknesses of the universities.

The University of Otago performed best in New Zealand for research citations per faculty, ranking 158th, while The University of Auckland ranked 232nd in this area. The University of Canterbury ranked 173rd for employer reputation.

Meanwhile, the THE rankings are based on indicators taken across five sectors including: research income; quality of research; teaching and learning environment; volume and influence of research; and ratio of international staff and students.

The majority of New Zealand universities slipped down a few places in the THE rankings, withThe University of Auckland ranked 175 (down from 164 last year); the University of Otago ranked 251-275th (down from 226-250), both Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Canterbury held their ranks (at 276-300th and 301-350 respectively), while the University of Waikato dropped from 301-350 to 351-400.

The somewhat lacklustre performance in both rankings begs questions about what needs to be done to improve the global positioning of
New Zealand universities.

Acting chair of Universities New Zealand Professor Harlene Hayne, Vice Chancellor of the University of Otago, believes more government investment is needed to bring about an improvement.

“This isn’t an academic issue. It’s an issue for this country,” says Professor Hayne.

“The unfortunate reality is that New Zealand universities have realised all the easy gains and the long-term trend is downward.

“Without more support from government, this country’s universities run the risk of hitting a tipping point where the best academics choose to work elsewhere and the best students choose to study elsewhere. Once you hit that tipping point, international experience shows there’s no easy or quick way back.

QS head of research Ben Sowter agrees that there is no room for complacency for New Zealand universities.

“New Zealand’s overall performance shows stability but also indicates that continuous investment is needed to ensure that its higher education sector remains globally competitive. Initiatives such as the increased government funding announced last year to promote the country as a top study destination are certainly positive signals,” says Sowter.

Professor Hayne argues that government funding per student has been declining in real terms over the past two decades.

“Universities have had to cut the number of staff per student and this has contributed significantly to our drop in rankings. Similarly, we are not doing enough to support new academic staff as they develop their teaching skills and research profile. This also has a significant impact on rankings,” says Professor Hayne.

However, executive director of the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union Jordan Williams says Kiwi universities should be focusing more on research outputs than any perceived lack of funding.

“New Zealand’s universities should look in the mirror rather than complain to the government and claim they are under-funded. Academics are crying poverty, when in reality, OECD figures show that New Zealand spends well above the average.”

Williams points to OECD figures which show that New Zealand spends 1.9 per cent of GDP on tertiary education, above the OECD average of 1.4 per cent, and the United States (1.3%), the United Kingdom (1.3%), and Australia (1.1%).

“Rather than throwing taxpayer money at proving self-evident theories, such as there being litter in walkways and sex on campuses, our universities may find they get higher rankings if they focused on real research,” says Williams.

The QS rankings, now in their tenth year, included 865 universities, out of over 3000 considered.
United States’ MIT was ranked first for its third consecutive year, followed by Britain’s University of Cambridge and Imperial College in second place.

Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, Princeton, and Yale all retained a spot in the top 10.

Meanwhile, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Harvard University, and Oxford University took the top three places in this year’s THE rankings. 

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