In summary

Opinion for The Australian by Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Professor Karen Hapgood

When choosing a university, what factors should guide your decision? How crucial is its ranking? Universities have grown to either thrive or falter based on these numbers, shaping their future strategies accordingly. It’s time to reconsider this approach. Here’s why.

When I was in high school deciding on my studies, university rankings didn’t cross my mind. Coming from a family with no university background, my decision was made the moment I laid eyes on the great sandstone court of my alma mater during an excursion. I immediately thought, ‘I’m going to study there’ and that’s exactly what I did. But – for varied and obvious reasons outside of architecture – people choose universities in a number of ways and in today’s global education landscape, rankings have become increasingly crucial.

Universities know this. These globally recognised rankings are valued by students, parents, academics, industry and funding bodies.

At Swinburne, we are aware of this as much as anyone and we value of our success. Last year, we ranked in the top 250 universities in the world, according to the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings. We place at 102 for research quality. In fact, we bucked a national trend by rising through the ranks in 2023. This truly is a remarkable achievement for a university as young as Swinburne, and we’re proud to showcase the accomplishments of our staff and students.

However, while rankings provide a straightforward numerical measure to consider, their methods and coverage face significant limitations. They offer a narrow view of the crucial work being done and what students can expect on campus.

That’s why we’re participating in More Than Our Rank – a global initiative that offers academic institutions a broader and more diverse definition of institutional success. 

We are the first Victorian university to sign this agreement, why did we make that decision?

Rankings are not unlike a company’s share price: you shouldn’t make judgments on a single number, but people often do. Warren Buffett makes good investment decisions by looking at a large range of factors beyond financial statements and stock prices, but many people look – and bet – on the basis of one number alone. This is a problem because they never tell the full story.

Similarly, global rankings have limitations in their methods and coverage, often relying on basic metrics with arbitrary weightings applied to produce a single number. In short, they don’t show the full picture.

That’s why initiatives like More Than Our Rank are important. One number can never capture everything that is important to everyone. For some, research quality measured by citations may be most salient; for others, it’s inclusion, industry engagement or social impact.

This initiative encourages universities to look beyond mere rankings and we urge others to join us because we believe in a broader definition of success – one that transforms the tertiary sector and, by extension, Australian society as a whole. We aim not just to chase rankings but to make decisions that create real impact.

At Swinburne, success reflects our commitment to fostering a supportive dual-sector educational environment, to celebrating diverse contributions to research outcomes, and to engaging meaningfully with and for our industry partners and communities.

For example, rankings can’t capture that Swinburne is the only university in Victoria to offer Children’s University – an international initiative that engages children to learn outside the classroom and increase their chances for educational achievement.

Rankings also don’t reflect how Swinburne’s groundbreaking research has vital, real-world impact. Citations (core to rankings) can’t show how our research informs policy that improves lives, such as helping tens of thousands of people access free online mental health services and free therapy through our Mental Health Online initiative. They can’t show how we’re supporting hundreds of small-to-medium Australian companies to future-proof their business, embrace advanced manufacturing and become Industry 4.0-ready, thanks to our Factory of the Future’s manufacturing, digital and commercial experts.

Rankings don’t show how we help sporting clubs and athletes at all career stages understand concussion risks from contact sports in our Swinburne Neuroimaging facility. Rankings don’t show that we were first to establish a National Centre for Reconciliation Practice, which advances understandings of reconciliation and drives systemic change to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities’ cultural safety, rights and knowledges.

Put simply, the impact that universities have on staff, students and graduates have on the world isn’t captured in a single number. That’s true for universities and their impact everywhere.

At Swinburne, we’ve always been prepared to do things differently – to be bold, imaginative and distinctive in our pursuit of global best practice. We’re proud to perform strongly in traditional global university rankings, yet our definition of success extends far beyond these metrics.   

Every university should sign this initiative. Rankings often reduce the rich, complex nature of university life to mere numbers, missing the essence of what truly makes each institution unique.

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