Over the past few months, the results of the “Big 3” international university rankings systems were released.
In general, the news for Otago was very good. Consistent with our results for the last five years, we scored in the 201-300 band in the ARWU (Shanghai) Rankings, in the 226-250 band in the Times Higher Education Rankings, and we scored 155th in the QS Rankings. When we take a closer look at some of the ranking data, Otago was the top university in New Zealand for the number of highly cited publications and the number of publications per capita.
Given that there are more than 10,000 universities around the world, the fact that the University of Otago has consistently scored in the top 1-3 per cent is something we should be very proud of. At the same time, we should also continue to look for ways to improve our performance. Like us, the New Zealand Government is extremely interested in university rankings because they are an important piece of information that international students use when making decisions about their study destination. Obviously, the best approach is for the universities and the Government to work together to find ways to enhance our international scorecard.
The key question is, what changes would make a difference? In order to answer this question, I took a careful look at the Top 10 Universities as ranked by the Times Higher Education to see if I could discover the secret to their success. Seven are located in America (California Institute of Technology, Harvard, Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Berkeley and the University of Chicago); the remaining three are located in the UK (Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College of London). Acknowledging the tyranny of distance, is there anything else that we could learn from the Top 10?
All of the universities in the Top 10 are research intensive. They are also old and well established. Their average founding date was 1699 and only one university in the Top 10 (Imperial College London) was founded after 1900. All of these universities are moderate in size; the average number of undergraduates is less than 9,000 and the average number of postgraduates is less than 7,000. Most boast that over 50 per cent of their classes include fewer than 20 students. This makes them very expensive. Their median tuition is $NZ48,235 per annum. They are all residential and most students live on campus for the bulk of their undergraduate career. They are highly selective. The average acceptance rate for undergraduates is less than 12 per cent. Finally, their governance councils are large and include representation by staff, students and alumni.
On the basis of this information, we are clearly headed in the right direction at the University of Otago. We are research-intensive, we are old and well-established, we are the only truly residential university in New Zealand, and our Council is large and includes staff, students and alumni. Our best strategy is to continue to play to these strengths and resist any change that would interfere with our progress to date. One issue we do face at present is a desire by Government to reduce the size of New Zealand university councils to a level well below that which is typical of the world’s great universities.
In terms of student numbers, a “more through the door” strategy is unlikely to enhance our international rankings. Instead, we have chosen to focus on excellence rather than raw number when recruiting students. It is now harder to gain acceptance to Otago and students must maintain satisfactory academic performance in order to continue. This strategy has led to a small drop in student numbers, which has caused some to worry, but it is important to keep in mind that the small decline is part of a larger strategy that emphasises excellence. The recruitment of more highly qualified postgraduate students continues to be a priority at Otago and we are intensifying our efforts to recruit the best and the brightest postgraduates from New Zealand and throughout the world. Funding remains a major issue as we try to balance constraints on Government support and tuition fees against our bold aspirations for students and staff.
I am proud to say that we have recently launched our Strategic Direction to 2020. On the basis of what I have learned about the world’s greatest universities, I feel confident that the path we have charted for ourselves will help us to achieve our goals, not only in terms of international rankings, but also in terms of our contribution to New Zealand and the rest of the world. We remain an institution that is highly committed to enhancing outcomes for all students, to providing a collegial and stimulating working environment for staff, to solving important practical problems, and to contributing to the greater good of society and the environment. We do these things, not because they will affect our international rankings, but because they are the right thing to do. I warmly welcome you to view our Strategic Direction to 2020.