The link between research funding and rankings

October 2016


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Universities New Zealand Executive Director CHRIS WHELAN says research funding levels go hand in hand with international university rankings.


Research fundingFor those who take an interest in universities, one topic that comes up time and time again is the importance of international university rankings. And, every time rankings are discussed, the issue of research funding is invariably raised alongside them. 

The link is rarely obvious to those outside the university system, but it makes a lot more sense when you consider how the main ranking systems operate.

There are three main ranking systems – Times Higher Education (THE), Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (AWRU, sometimes referred to as Shanghai Jiao Tong).

By necessity, the three ranking systems all tend to focus on what is relatively easy to measure and compare across the large number of universities that are ranked.

For example, it is easy to measure the number of citations that academic researchers get in international publications, so all three rankings agencies measure this. By contrast, it’s much harder to measure teaching quality so only two rankings agencies attempt this.

At a high level, the rankings for all three agencies are derived across four broad categories.

In the table opposite, ‘Ratios’ refers to things like staff:student ratios, and the proportion of international staff and students to domestic staff and students – the argument being that international staff and students are drawn to higher quality institutions and higher ratios are a proxy for quality as staff and students vote with their feet.

As you can see – research accounts for between 60 per cent (QS) and 90 per cent (AWRU) across the three ranking systems. In addition to research citation rates, research measures
include surveys of academics (asking who they think are the best universities in their field of study), numbers of PhDs graduating annually, income from industry, and research income from all sources.

This focus on research is somewhat deliberate, given how important knowledge production and knowledge transfer has become in the role of universities internationally as economies have become increasingly focused on growth through innovation and knowledge management. In New Zealand alone, universities generate more than $500 million annually through commercialisation of research. 

But what about teaching quality? Do rankings tell us much about teaching quality? The
answer is ‘yes – sort of’ and it’s also partially linked to research.

Two of the ranking systems have actual measures for teaching quality. THE tries to measure teaching quality by surveying academics at other universities and asking them which universities (other than their own) they think provide excellent teaching. By contrast, QS surveys employers of graduates and asks them to rate the skills and work-readiness of the graduates. AWRU doesn’t try to measure it at all.

On top of that, scores for research are also an indicator, of sorts, for teaching quality. The main thing that differentiates a university education from other forms of teaching and learning is that it focuses on teaching students how to approach real-world problems, for which there either isn’t a straightforward solution or for which analysis, critical thinking and problem-solving skills are required to create new or innovative solutions. 

Partly because of this, universities typically require the majority of their teaching staff to be research active and at the forefront of knowledge in their field. This has a range of benefits: 

  • Firstly, it means that the knowledge and problems being discussed are current and relevant.
  • Secondly, it means the teachers can help students gain real-world skills in researching 
  • and carrying out all problem solving, critical thinking and critical reasoning that is required of good research.
  • Thirdly, it means that teaching can be more interactive and responsive to student needs.  Research-active teachers can pose questions of their students and bring their own knowledge and experience to whatever pathway the student thinking goes down. This approach to education is often referred to as ‘active-learning’ and internationally it is associated with significantly higher levels of student engagement, student satisfaction and student academic success.
  • Fourthly, it means these academics typically have connections and reputations nationally and internationally. That greatly assists the research students who do master’s or doctorate-level qualifications under them and helps them produce the relevant impactful research that prepares them for careers in academia, industry and society.

So, why did I say ‘sort of’ above when I asked whether rankings implied much about teaching quality? 

The reality is that an academic who is research active and highly knowledgeable about their field is more capable of being an effective university teacher than one who is not. However, that doesn’t mean they actually are a good teacher.

Universities separately invest large amounts of time and money in developing, maintaining and measuring the teaching effectiveness of their academic staff. For example, university academics have received 66 per cent of National Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards over the past five years, while only making up 46 per cent of all teaching staff across the wider tertiary education system. But little of that is measured directly in the ranking systems.


Research funding table


The Productivity Commission’s recent draft report on tertiary education includes a recommendation that providers develop or adopt frameworks “for assessing and rewarding the capability and performance of tertiary teachers”. So there will be further discussions on this issue.

In the 12 years since rankings were introduced they have become an almost universally used tool for universities to:

  1. recruit academic staff. The job market for academic staff is international. A good academic teacher and researcher can get a job anywhere in the world. Half of New Zealand’s academic staff were recruited from overseas. In many cases New Zealand universities brought back New Zealanders who were studying or working abroad. Rankings provide a signal of quality to a potential academic staff member who may not know whether it is better to work for Harvard University or the University of Luxembourg.
  2. recruit international students. Because there are no other robust mechanisms for students to compare one university against another, rankings have become the default standard. Surveys show that around 90 per cent of international students at least consider the ranking of universities they are deciding between and for 40 per cent ranking is a critical part of their decision.
  3. get access to international research partnerships. Governments internationally are looking to fund international research collaborations – recognising that these projects usually generate knowledge and benefits that greatly exceed what would be possible using just local researchers. Governments are increasingly targeting funding to joint-research based on the ranking of the overseas university. If New Zealand universities want to access these funds and to work with some of the world’s best researchers, they need good rankings in the relevant disciplines.
  4. get access to international scholarships. As with research partnerships, many governments offer a range of scholarships for their brightest citizens to study abroad. It is increasingly common for governments in countries like Brazil and Chile to limit the scholarships to universities that are, say, ranked in the top 100 or 200. If New Zealand universities want to attract these bright young people to study in New Zealand, they have to have the appropriate rankings.

So, for a university to get access to good international staff, top international students, research collaborations with overseas universities and access to students via international scholarships, it has to score well in international rankings. To score well in international rankings it has to perform well and have a good international reputation – particularly with regard to research. And to have a good research reputation, a university has to have the funds to support a high-quality research programme.

This is why universities continue to talk about the importance of international rankings and research funding levels in the same breath. And it’s why universities keep pushing the Government to increase investment in research.

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