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How Rankings Obsession Drove the Group of Eight’s Chinese Students Binge

NEW PAPER: How Rankings Obsession Drove the Group of Eight’s Chinese Students Binge

Salvatore Babones

Australian universities are always keen to tout their international rankings success, but the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) published August 15 was explicitly designed to meet the policy priorities of the Chinese government:

  • It includes Nobel Prizes, but excludes those in Literature or Peace
  • It gives credit for Scientific research, but excludes the Arts and Humanities
  • It focuses entirely on research, with credit for teaching or service

The full ARWU 2020 rankings are now available online at:

Australia’s Group of Eight (Go8) universities have risen on the ARWU rankings mainly through the recruitment of a small number of ‘Highly Cited Researchers’ (HCRs), with circumstantial evidence suggesting that many of them have been recruited from overseas:

  • Australia’s proportion of the world’s HCRs has risen from 1.71% in 2004 to 4.36% in 2019
  • The company that produces the HCR list specifically notes that “Australian research institutions appear to have recruited a significant number of Highly Cited Researchers since 2014”
  • Only 4 of the Go8’s 162 HCRs are in the social sciences, and none in the humanities (which are not included in the list)

The recruitment of overseas HCRs has been made possible by excess revenues extracted from international (primarily Chinese) students, whose numbers have increased dramatically at Go8 universities since the turn of the millennium:

  • Since 2001, international student enrolments at Go8 universities have increased 272%, from 34,185 in 2001 to 127,176 in 2018
  • Throughout the 2010s, an average of 37.3% of Australia’s international students have come from China
  • Chinese students account for approximately 68% of international students and 26% of all students at Go8 universities

Since 2012, the five Go8 universities that have experienced high and expanding Chinese student enrolments have rapidly improved their ARWU rankings:

  • Monash
  • Melbourne
  • Sydney
  • Queensland
  • UNSW

Meanwhile the three Go8 universities that experienced more modest growth in international student enrolments saw their ARWU rankings fall, or didn’t make it into the global Top 100 at all (ANU, Adelaide, UWA).

In order to succeed in China’s ARWU rankings system, Go8 universities have relied heavily on pulling one specific lever: the recruitment of star academics from a limited global list of HCRs. The five universities that have been particularly successful in doing so are the same five universities that, before the coronavirus crisis, became most reliant on Chinese student fee income: Monash, Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland, and UNSW. As they now face massive revenue shortfalls, Go8 universities are aggressively lobbying for a financial bailout — and a quick return to business as usual for international student recruitment. They should instead refocus their ambitions away from the pursuit of Chinese rankings and toward the education of Australian students.

Download the full paper and the underlying spreadsheets here:

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Sydney-based globalization expert Salvatore Babones is available to speak on the Chinese economy (demographics, growth, technology), the Belt & Road Initiative, global trade networks, and Australia-China relations. Contact: