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Investment in research driving improvements in Australian universities' QS World University Rankings

Australian universities' investment in research has driven improvement in their global rankings, according to a global higher education think tank that produces one of the most influential world university league tables, released on Tuesday.

The ANU remains Australia's best-ranked university in the QS World University Rankings 2016, but it has slipped out of the Top 20 to 22nd. The University of Technology Sydney and the University of Wollongong made the biggest improvements, moving up to 193 and 218 respectively.

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UNSW and the University of Western Australia have improved their research performance, ranking in the global top 100 on that measure for the first time, the authors said.

UTS Vice-Chancellor Professor Attila Brungs said "all university ranking systems measure different things, and have strengths and weaknesses. But when a university like UTS moves up steadily in all rankings at the same time, it can only point to an overall improvement in our performance and an increase in our reputation internationally.

"UTS has been on an upward trajectory for a number of years, and it is all due to the hard work of many staff over an extended period of time. We are continuing to drive innovation in our approaches to teaching and learning and absolute excellence in our research and research impact, and it is paying off."

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ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said the ANU was proud to be named Australia's top university and maintain the number one position.

"Everyone at ANU takes great pride in being measured against the best universities in the world, and we are committed to build on the excellence that naturally comes with the responsibility of being a truly national resource for all Australians," Professor Schmidt said.

"Our top ranking reflects the outstanding research efforts of staff and students and demonstrates the University's ability to conduct research that is equal to or better than the very best in the world."

The global rankings have become very important for Australian universities competing for the international student dollar.

"This year's rankings imply that levels of investment are determining who progresses and who regresses," said Ben Sowter, head of research at QS's Intelligence Unit.

He said that Western European nations which are proposing cuts to public research spending are losing ground globally, while Russia, the US, South Korea and Japan made notable improvements in the list.

The QS World University Rankings are considered among the world's best global leagues tables, along with the Academic Ranking of World Universities (formerly the Shanghai-Jiaotong index) and the Times Higher Ed, which is due to report for 2016 in two weeks.

Unlike the ARWU which focuses on top researchers, QS bases its rankings on measures additional to research citations, including reputation, teaching, employability of graduates and "internationalisation". It measures research performance on the basis of citations in peer-reviewed journals per faculty.

Eleven of the top 20 institutions globally are in the US, including the top 3: MIT, Harvard and Stanford. Australia has four in the top 50.

Overall, Australian universities have lifted their showing in the global rankings in the past decade. In 2003, Australia had just 13 top 500 universities in the AWRU, now there is 23.

"There is strong justification to claim that investments into research over the past decade have paid off in terms of positioning Australia as a leading research nation," says Dr Tony Sheil, a rankings expert from Griffith University.

Some academics argue that the so-called publish-or-perish imperative has worsened since the global rankings have become so key in attracting full-fee paying international students. International students use the global rankings as a key factor in deciding where to study.

Education minister Simon Birmingham said "After the strong results in the recent Academic Rankings of World Universities I offer my congratulations to Australia's universities which have once again shone on the world stage in the QS World University Rankings, particularly with their consistently-improving research performance rankings.

"While there have been some mixed results, they highlight the competitiveness of international universities and the need for Australia to foster innovation and excellence in learning and labs while ensuring strong collaboration with local businesses and industry.

"The results demonstrate that while internationally competitive, we cannot be complacent and must continue to improve our global standing."

with Karen Hardy