When it comes to reputation, Group of 8 dominate

Australia’s oldest and most prestigious universities, mostly sandstone and clad in ivy, have topped the global reputation category in The Australian Financial Review’s Best Universities Ranking, despite faring poorly in measures of student satisfaction. The University of Melbourne ranked first for global reputation, followed by equal second for the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland and the University of New South Wales.

Sydney University vice-chancellor Professor Mark Scott says he is determined to ensure the storied and historic institution he leads continues to boost its reputation into the future. “I’m intently focused on continuing to earn that reputation in what we’re doing today,” he says.

The university has an enviable reputation both domestically and internationally, Scott adds, noting that tens of thousands of international students want to graduate with a Sydney University degree. “We’re a very international university, so our reputation isn’t just strong domestically, it’s very strong internationally as well,” he says. “In a sense, the reputation of the university goes with those students as they graduate.”

A solid reputation is a vital asset for any modern university, helping to attract the best students, the top-of-the-game researchers and the most productive and lucrative private sector partnerships.

Based on an intangible and shifting assessment of quality, a “reputation” can be handed down through generations of graduates, based on word of mouth among peers, enhanced by prominent research successes and by teaching excellence scores and awards, by graduate employability metrics, and by industry and private sector perspectives.

The global reputation category uses underlying data from the most prominent international rankings agencies. Although this aligns highly with the research measure, 43 per cent of the weighted data is on measures from the agencies which are not directly about research.

“I’m conscious of the fact that the University of Sydney is more than 170 years old and part of our reputational strength comes from our longevity,” Scott says.

But he points out that stature can be a deterrent for some potential students from remote areas or less wealthy backgrounds.

Looks like Hogwarts

Youngsters from less advantaged backgrounds recently told him the university’s ornate Great Hall and sandstone quad reminded them of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts wizarding school, but one said he couldn’t see himself ever becoming a Sydney University student.

“It was too big, too grand, too much like a fantasy,” Scott says. “We’re trying to explain to every student, when you get in here, we will look after you, we will support you. We will help you be successful.”

The university has recently introduced generous scholarships to assist these students through the last years of school, expose them to the fabric of the institution, and shepherd them through the first difficult months of tertiary study.

Sydney’s substantial reputation, both internationally and domestically, is important because it promotes cooperation and collaboration between the university’s researchers and their colleagues elsewhere who are working on the world’s most pressing problems, Scott says.

“The great research challenges that we face will never be solved by one researcher in a lab, or by one institution,” he says, listing as examples the transition to net-zero, societal inequality, the ageing of populations worldwide, and the many diseases that remain stubbornly resistant to cure.

To that end, Sydney is building a biomedical accelerator which will link the university with Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and speed the path from lab to bedside, as well as joining up teams of researchers to work on eating disorders and, in the Charles Perkins Centre, addressing the burden of chronic disease.

Scott rejects the notion that diminished student satisfaction is an occupational hazard for the largest, most historic and most competitive universities, adding that Sydney has “teams of people” working on how best to improve the student experience.

“We take student feedback very seriously,” he says. “I accept it’s a challenge for large universities. I don’t accept that if you are a big, strong, research-focused university you can’t do well in student feedback as well. We have a laser-like focus on it. We want to earn our reputation through the experience of the students at the university today.”

Sydney University wants to give students “a truly transformational experience”, he adds, and equip them with the skills and understanding for life and work in a rapidly changing world.

Excellence in teaching

With a reputation that equals Sydney’s in the Best Universities Ranking, the University of Queensland is known for outstanding research results recognised by some of the more traditional research-driven rankings, says vice-chancellor Professor Deborah Terry.

Queensland is also well-recognised for excellence in teaching, she adds, and the university has won more national teaching awards than any other Australian university. “We’ve led in terms of introducing teaching-focused academics with the view that that had to be a genuine career path, right through to professor,” she says.

The university’s substantial reputation has been a long time in the making, built on individual student experience as well as research results, such as the high-profile human papillomavirus vaccine Gardasil, Terry says. Co-developed by Queensland University immunologist Professor Ian Frazer, the vaccine has made a genuine difference in the incidence of cervical cancer, not only in Australia but around the world, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

“We recognise absolutely the importance of discovery and fundamental research as much as applied, translational commercialised outcomes,” Terry says, noting UQ researchers were behind a potentially viable COVID-19 vaccine, and elsewhere the university had a strong profile in the sustainable mining, agriculture and biotech sectors. “We are seen to be an institution that’s engaged with the issues of the day,” she says.

The university has a long-standing reputation for quality, but Terry says that comes with the cost of constant vigilance. “We all have to avoid being complacent,” she says. “We have to understand why we’re important, and what we deliver, and we also have to make sure we’re positioning ourselves in line with what young people are looking for.”

Students enjoy the excitement of a lively campus, Terry says, making friends in the clubs and societies. “They want to be here, and I’ve probably heard that more post-COVID,” she says. “The campus is alive; it’s a good place to be.”

More than one-third of Queensland’s students now take double degrees, Terry says, and the breadth of available study options is an important drawcard. Graduate employability, the university’s campus culture, research success and institutional reputation all have important roles to play in attracting students and researchers, and nurturing external collaborations. Assessed for rankings, these elements also factor into the institution’s broader reputation.

Many ranking guides are skewed towards research rather than teaching because teaching is harder to measure across jurisdictions, Terry says. Even so, she believes rankings more generally are important because they can boost the quality of the students, staff and partners the university attracts, yet she adds she doesn’t see rankings as an end in and of themselves.

“They’re important, up to a point,” she says. “Really what’s important is that we deliver in our research, we deliver in our education, and that we play our role in enriching the communities in which we’re embedded. That’s our mission.”

Australian Financial Review