The Group of Eight’s Chinese Whispers

The latest university rankings are out, and once again Australia has hit the jackpot, with seven universities in the global Top 100. All of the lucky seven belong to the Group of Eight (Go8), with only troubled Adelaide left out in the cold. The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), released August 15, is widely regarded as the premier university ranking system, because it is entirely based on ‘hard’ research metrics. None of that paff about teaching or the humanities. The ARWU is the real deal.

The ARWU ranks universities based on their performance in Nobel Prizes (as long as they’re not for peace or literature), Fields Medals in mathematics, publications in Science and Nature, papers indexed in the Science Citation Index and Social Science Citation Index, and success in recruiting ‘highly cited researchers’, or “HCRs”. The ARWU is published by the ShanghaiRankings consultancy, a commercial spinoff from the Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

They are, simply put, China’s rankings.

With Nobel Prizes hard to come by and publications in Science, Nature, and other prestigious journals requiring years of hard work to improve the broad quality of research, HCRs have become the main focus of Go8 universities’ efforts to improve their ARWU rankings. The official list of HCRs used in the ARWU is compiled by Clarivate Analytics, which was formed in 2016 through a spin-off of the Thomas ISI division of Thomson Reuters. In 2019, a total of 6216 researchers were recognised on the list.

Clarivate only recognises HRCs in 21 broad fields of study, nearly all of them scientific. Only two social scientific fields are included (Economics & Business and Social Sciences), and none of them in the humanities. Globally, only 5.1 per cent of HCRs are in the two social sciences fields, but in Australia the concentration of social science HCRs is even lower. Altogether, the Go8 universities employ 162 HRCs, but only four in economics and the social sciences. None of them of them fits the traditional model of a social scientist. They are, in fact, one mathematical physicist (listed as an HCR in ‘Business & Economics’) and three public health scholars (listed as HCRs in the ‘Social Sciences’).

Although the Chinese government did not set up the Thomson/Clarivate HCR system it closely reflects the disciplinary biases of the Chinese government: lots of science, a little social science (but only in those niches where it approximates ‘scientific’ methods), and no humanities at all. Thus when Australian universities set strategic goals that involve the pursuit of HCRs, they implicitly set goals that are aligned with those of the Chinese government. This alignment even goes beyond the direct recruitment of HRCs to affect their broader strategic research initiatives.

Most of the Go8’s peer institutions in other countries develop their research agendas organically in response to government funding initiatives, the needs of local business communities, and the interests of private donors. They may be legally autonomous institutions, but they are deeply embedded in the societies that host and fund them. They thus exhibit what sociologists call ’embedded autonomy’: they are broadly answerable to society for the goals they set, but sufficiently independent to think outside the box in the ways they choose to pursue those goals.

Internationally unparalleled numbers of international students, however, have given Go8 universities the resources to finance their research ambitions out of unrestricted tuition revenues. They thus have the freedom to set their own research priorities, unfettered by government or societal oversight. And reflecting their ambitions to rise up the rankings (especially the ARWU rankings), they have invested their discretionary research funds almost entirely in the ‘hard’ sciences.

Our of 53 strategic research initiatives sponsored by the eight Go8 universities, 44 are primarily focused on the sciences and nine on the social sciences. Not one is focused primarily on the humanities. There are no centrally-funded history, literature, or philosophy strategic research initiatives at Go8 universities. Nor are there law, business or art initiatives. When the Go8 says ‘research’, they mean ‘science’. And, it must be admitted, the Australian government seems to feel the same way.

Yet slightly more than half (52.8 per cent) of the Go8’s collective enrolments of 441,000 students are concentrated in the non-science disciplines of education, management and commerce, society and culture, and the creative arts, according to 2018 data from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment. For international students, whose excess tuition fees largely fund universities’ discretionary research budgets, the figure is even higher (54.6 per cent). Clearly, there is a mismatch between the research that student fees should be supporting and the research that Go8 universities want to do.

Unlike their science-minded colleagues, student-facing education, business, humanities and arts academics have not experienced massive increases in university funding for their research. Money generated from teaching has instead gone into funding research-only academics who work in labs and rarely if ever interact with students.

Now that the Chinese student dollars have dried up, universities will have to decide who to keep: the teaching-and-research academics who generate tuition income, or the research-only academics who drive rankings success. It’s clear which ones they want to keep, if the government will only give them the money to keep them.

In their aggressive pursuit of ARWU success, Australia’s Go8 universities have remade themselves in the image of the Chinese universities the rankings were designed to inspire: producing lots of scientific research while catering to the educational needs of Chinese students. In November 2017, the Go8’s chief executive, Vicki Thomson, gave a speech at the 7th International Conference on World-Class Universities, organised by Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Center for World-Class Universities on behalf of the ARWU’s publishers, the ShanghaiRanking Consultancy. She contrasted China’s “powerful political settings” for university success with Australia’s “fragile” ones:

It is fair to say that, from Australia, we watch with awe, and more than a little envy, at the determined prioritisation of university education and research in China. […] In Australia, with my Board of Presidents, I am managing a leading group of research-intensive universities through what are fragile political settings. We do not allow those settings to affect the quality of what we deliver, in teaching or in research, but, it would be disingenuous to pretend that it has been, or is, simple or easy. As a group of universities we are as pragmatic as we are determined. We know we must survive and thrive despite the fragile settings.

We owe that to our students, and to Australia’s economic future, because there cannot be a knowledge economy without a thriving university sector at its core. As guests joining us today from other nations can attest, we in Australia, are, sadly, not alone. The common question is how do we withstand the fragility we are confronted with? How, in Australia’s case, does the Group of Eight set and pursue strategies to achieve excellence in shifting sands where we have had six Prime Ministers in 10 years and 9 Education Ministers in a decade, each with a different teaching and research policy agenda?

Thomson went on to fret over the irony that “the more available to the community a university education in Australia has become, the less the community has trusted us”.

With due allowance for the natural urge to show respect for one’s hosts and with due credit to the Go8 for continuing to make its statements publicly available, we nonetheless have here the spectacle of an Australian university industry leader lauding “the determined prioritisation of university education and research in China”, lamenting the “shifting sands where we have had six Prime Ministers in ten years and nine Education Ministers in a decade”, and still not understanding how Australians could lose faith in their country’s universities.

If the Go8 and its member universities are serious about regaining the public’s trust, they can start by trusting the public. In a post-coronavirus world that is sure to prompt many changes in university funding and operations, it would be better for Go8 universities to evolve their own democratic agendas than to have one imposed by their Australian government funders or state overseers. But either way, the Go8 universities must outgrow their unhealthy relationships with the People’s Republic of China if they want to retain their increasingly tenuous relationships with the Australian public. We all want our universities to succeed. We just want them to succeed while upholding Australian values, not by cosying up to China.

Salvatore Babones is The Philistine

  • Geoff Sherrington

    The strength of universities has long been with science and engineering. This should continue in Australia.
    Science has provided tangible advancements that are useful to society, while the arts recycle different ways to gossip about intangibles.
    The arts sector might help by improving school education so that University science faculties can do away with classes in elementary literacy and number skills.
    That said, I do enjoy reading the better of the Quadrant articles. Also, as a scientist, I have a bias. Geoff S

  • Ian MacKenzie

    Universities cannot function, and will not regain any traction with Australian taxpayers, without academic freedom. The treatment of Peter Ridd at JCU, Drew Pavlou at UQ and the recent removal of Elaine Pearson’s interview calling for human rights in Hong Kong at UNSW indicate a serious problem at Australian Universities. This applies across both science and arts faculties. Without academic freedom, universities will become a pointless echo chamber of political correctness, much like the ABC. This should not be funded by taxpayers.
    Given the abuses listed above, and the evasive response to the French Report by most Australian Vice Chancellors, I’m inclined to agree with Janet Albrechsen that what is required is an academic freedom code which is a prerequisite for taxpayer funding and which is monitored with funding penalties for breaches.

  • ianl

    Agreed, Geoff Sherrington.

    However, as balance, we still have Geoffrey Blainey. I absolutely love his books – impeccably researched and written with lucidity and clarity.

  • Stephen Due

    Geoff S. Yes, science and engineering are among the strengths of the university sector, perhaps along with medicine, law, accountancy and a range of practical subjects that lead into professional careers.
    But I think science in particular is suffering from two unwelcome developments: (1) the emphasis in schools on Green ideology-driven pseudo-science; and (2) the stress in universities on appointing and promoting staff who can attract government grants, which often are tied to ideology-driven political agendas.
    Although my degree was in humanities, and my subsequent career in libraries, I have often recalled with deep gratitude the excellent education I received at school in mathematics, physics and chemistry. That was before the Green ideology took root. Apart from anything else, my wonderful teachers gave me a lifelong appreciation of the value and discipline of evidence, and of the application of mathematical knowledge to the physical world.
    In the popular debates and the seemingly endless political lectures that we have had to endure in the course of the current pandemic, there seems to have been a pronounced absence of basic scientific literacy. The schools are not doing their job in my view. If they were, public discourse on scientific subjects would be improved, government decision-making would be improved – and maybe there would be more and better students enrolling in science and engineering at university.

  • Katharine Betts

    Dear Professor Babones
    Thank you for a most informative article.
    Katharine Betts

  • Geoffrey Luck

    I imagine that most Australians, if they thought about it at all, believed that our education of the Chinese masses was akin to some sort of Colombo Plan. That is, we were spending vast sums to help lift children of an impoverished nation out of their ignorance, to send them back to enrich their homeland. Why has it taken so long to wake up (if we have) to the fact that we have been embracing a clique of subversives, spying for their own country, and in the process debauching our universities with their utter dependence on the yuan yob. In this light, Salvatore’s expose of the fatuous ranking system is interesting, but irrelevant.

  • Elizabeth Beare

    An interesting perspective, Salvatore. What you refer to is an international issue, certainly coat-tailed on by China, but all part of the differential systems of professional recognition and advancement applied internationally to the sciences as compared to the arts. Recognising and rewarding productive work re these two different animals has been turned into a financial business rather than one concerning academic endeavour. In practical terms grants of huge amounts of money are not required for much genuine academic work in the arts, and grant applications are padded and bloated in order to compete, even though smaller sums are quite adequate compared to the laboratory and engineering systems required for STE subjects. Maths is similar to arts in this regard.

    This real disparity in needs is not made any better by the recent theoretical and intellectual poverty of much of what passes for research in the humanities and the social sciences in these highly politicised times. Who is not outraged to see half a million dollars spent on some special woke arts project of little or no value to the sum total of human knowledge, so blinkered is it in approach, when children are still dying of treatable cancers if the trials are being starved of funding? (Pace, I do know that medical funding is a generally well-earned and well provided system in Australia, but the public always see its need as endless, because medical treatment matters so much to all people – and this of course is where the public health bureaucracy step in with hands out to say more belongs to us, nannies or not).
    Personally, I would love to see a different system in place, where individual thinkers in the humanities and social sciences receive funding to suit their needs, big or small, and that their work is judged on the quality of their output rather than the size of their grant and their political leanings.
    Spare a thought in all of this too for the overworked and underpaid underlings, the part-timers, who keep the whole system afloat as far as face-to-face teaching is concerned. Something is wrong there too.

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