What makes a top-class university?

What makes a top-class university?

Last week, the world’s top-performing universities were announced, ranking almost 1,400 universities across 92 countries.

The World University Rankings 2020 results are based on 13 carefully calibrated performance indicators that measure an institution’s performance across teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

Leading the pack for Australia was the University of Melbourne, which placed number 1 nationally and number 32 in the world.

Indeed, the University is well acquainted with success in global rankings. It is ranked 57th in the world by the Centre for World University Rankings (CWUR), 39th in the world by the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), 30th in the University Ranking by Academic Performance list and 41st in the QS World University Rankings.

According to Vice-Chancellor, Duncan Maskell, this success is largely driven by the hard work of its academic staff “who deliver outstanding research and create a world-class learning environment for our students to thrive”.

Another key strength of the University is in its diverse student body. Nearly 40% of its 50,270 students come from outside Australia, making it an attractive destination for international students.

Professor Maskell also highlighted the University’s “continued focus on the highest quality education, teaching and research”.

“The University aspires to deliver the finest-quality education and to combine this with world-leading research,” Professor Maskell said.

“This is reflected in the THE rankings which show the University’s performance is strongest in the Teaching and Research pillars.”

He added that the University has also applied a sustained focus on better communicating the outcomes of its research, which is shown by steady improvement in the Citations and Industry pillars.

Navigating a changing world

According to Professor Maskell, the starting point for a university’s success must begin with “an outstanding community of people who are dedicated to understanding, challenging and generating knowledge in a wide and diverse range of fields”.

“This concept has many important elements to it. It is about the work we do – the vital work of education and research, in all the disciplines of the sciences, the arts, the humanities, the professions,” he told the Inaugural Vice-Chancellor's Address at the University’s ‘Old Quad’.

“It is also about the kind of community we are and can become – a community rooted in scholarship, in the give-and-take of respectful but impassioned debate and argument, in ideas, in facts. A community with a distinct place in the world, but also reaching out to people everywhere: locally, the city, the bush; peoples of this and other nations.”

Professor Maskell said education and research must be seen as “conjoined activities” undertaken with the full participation of the whole community at the University.

“This most definitely includes our students,” he said.

“How do we go about making this happen?  Is it through small-group teaching sessions?  Or is this unattainable at the scale at which we operate, and if so, what can we substitute in its place?”  

Professor Maskell said a “crucially important current question” is how this is affected by current and emerging technologies.

“What are the opportunities provided by the rapidly changing communications landscape?” he said.

Future challenges, current opportunities

In just nine years’ time – in 2028 – the University of Melbourne will celebrate its 175th anniversary. The first-year students who will join the University in 2028 are currently in Year Four of primary school.

Professor Maskell said these digital natives will want more than just mobile connectivity.

“They will want efficient mobility, accessibility through technology and the best learning facilities,” he said.

“It was only nine years ago that the first iPad was released, and thirteen years ago that Facebook was launched to the world. What devices and technologies might exist in 2028?”

Professor Maskell said all of these questions need to be considered in the context of a business model and “wise planning for the future that keeps the university financially secure and able to continue as a perpetual establishment”.

“However, this is most certainly not easy in the current worldwide climate of mistrust of institutions and disregard of facts,” he said.

“As well as mistrust, universities must also navigate a high level of scrutiny from government,”

These challenges notwithstanding, Professor Maskell said, universities “must continue to make powerful contributions to society”

“This happens first and foremost in producing well-educated students who go out from here into the world to do great things – as citizens in the workforce, as parents, friends, collaborators and in many cases as leaders, often on the international stage,” he said.

“When they leave campus to do these things they remain, in an important and real sense, part of our community, and we should celebrate and promote this more.”