University rankings trouble

New Zealand universities' slide down world rankings has tertiary education leaders uneasy - saying Government investment in the sector is falling short of what's needed for them to keep up.

But Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce refutes any funding shortfalls, and says the rankings reflect the increased competitiveness of the international university market.

An international table of the world's top universities, released today by QS World University Rankings, shows New Zealand universities are losing ground on their international counterparts, with the country's top six institutes all dropping down the ranks.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology took the top spot ahead of Harvard University and Britain's third-placed Cambridge University.

The top-ranked New Zealand university was Auckland University at 94, followed by Otago University at 155 and Canterbury University at 238 - all down on their last year's rankings of 83, 133 and 221, respectively.

Tertiary Education Union spokesman Stephen Day said rankings were often set up to reward the longstanding prestigious universities at the expense of new emerging ones.

The rankings compare the world's top 800 institutions several components taking into account academic and employer reputation, staff-to-student ratios, citations per staff member and proportion of international students and staff.

Mr Day said the key component New Zealand universities could control, staff-to-student ratios, was being lost due to resource cuts.

Massey University has fallen in the rankings almost every year since 2007, from 242 to 343, but during a similar period, between 2009 and 2013, the Government had cut tertiary education funding from $4.5 billion to $4.1b and student-to-staff ratios had gone from 17.5 students per academic in 2007, to 19 students per academic in 2012, Mr Day said.

''It's a hard ask to hold our place on the table let alone go up it. Especially as [governments elsewhere] are spending more and more money and we're spending less and less.''

Massey University spokesman James Gardiner said rankings fluctuated, but didn't reflect a drop in quality.

"Just the reality that the investment per student in a top 10 university like Stanford is around $160,000 a year compared with about $22,000 per student in New Zealand.

''The average fees for top 10 universities are about 10 times higher than the average Massey fee, he said.

''Hundreds of universities are being opened every year and developing countries are investing heavily in education, so it becomes inevitable that their investment will push some further up the rankings while New Zealand's investment in the sector remains static."

Mr Joyce said the Government's investment in universities has increased by 16.5 per cent over the past four years, despite tough financial times.

''The challenge for New Zealand universities from these figures is to respond more nimbly and quickly to the competitive challenges they face. That includes growing international linkages and investing more in disciplines where they have competitive advantage.''

Manawatu Standard