A new ranking of the world’s universities has led to the usual trumpeting that Australian academia is “world class” — but this may come as cold comfort to students who feel they have been lured into paying top dollar for a second-rate education.

There are widespread rumblings from students and staff at Australia’s universities that the quest for high research rankings, and the lucrative deluge of international student dollars that follows, is masking substandard teaching and learning. Some staff report pressure to give students higher marks than they deserve, to keep the fees coming.

You won’t see all that reflected in the 2012 academic ranking of world universities, released today by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Australia has five universities in the top 100, making us the world’s third-best performer (the ranking is based largely on research-related factors such as academics’ prizes, articles and citations).

  • 57: University of Melbourne
  • 64: ANU
  • 90: University of Queensland
  • =93: University of Sydney
  • =96: University of Western Australia

The University of Melbourne has raced up the ratings recently. Vice-chancellor Glyn Davis told The Australian he was “immensely thrilled” with the ARWU result. “We are well on our way to becoming a world-class system,” Davis said. The result fits in with the university’s cashed-up marketing strategy that it offers a “world-class education”, “world-class degrees”, “one of the world’s finest universities”. “Dream large,” runs one TV ad campaign.

“It’s nice we live in a country that can do so well in the Olympics and in university rankings. It says something nice about Australia,” Davis said.

But it’s not quite so nice if you look beyond the research strengths and focus on the student experience at Australia’s top universities.

At the University of Melbourne, students complain of underqualified tutors, poor or inconsistent lecturing, crowded tutorials, rote learning aimed at encouraging international students, and compulsory subjects that are of questionable value or standard. Students reported that in one masters-level business subject, they were encouraged to buy one textbook and learn it for the exam, much of which was multiple choice; they were not encouraged to read more widely.

Mark Kettle, president of the University of Melbourne Student Union, says research rankings are “not actually reflective of the student experience in the classroom”.

“The quality of education is lacking … we’re not getting what we paid for. It’s very inconsistent,” Kettle told Crikey.

He says behind the scenes some staff and students laughed at the university’s marketing that it was “world class” and enabled students to “dream large”. “It raises expectations to the level where they aren’t at,” Kettle said.

Many problems related to underqualified tutors; some were first-year PhD students who received a few training sessions and were handed the subject reader and expected to work it out. Tutorials were overcrowded; many had 20-25 students, and some had up to 35. There was a growing problem with complaints around marking by fledgling tutors; students were increasingly seeking re-marking from their lecturers.

Kettle said international students are less willing to complain, but when asked were sometimes scathing: “They definitely feel that they’re not getting what they paid for.”

While Kettle was at pains to point out that some teaching was good, he said a cycle had developed where the university chased high research results, to do well in international rankings, to insert into glossy marketing material, to appeal to international students and to circumvent a paucity of government funding for tertiary education. (The university has a shade under 10,000 full-time-equivalent international students.)

“What do they see as the main role of the university; research, or training students?” Kettle asked. “Focusing solely on the research outcomes … is actually to their detriment in the long term.”

There are also concerns about teaching standards at the ANU. While the uni says it is “ranked among the best in the world” and heavily promotes its academic credentials, some students who step outside the golden courses of law and medicine complain of uninspired lecturers and poor campus facilities.

As a former arts/science student told Crikey: “I once did a course where we just watched Clueless and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Some students speculate that pressure to pass international students has resulted in an artificial raising in marks.

Dallas Proctor, president of the ANU Students’ Association, defends teaching standards, saying most students found it to be good and consistent. However, he says research rankings should not be heavily relied upon as teaching is not generally to the same standard.

“I would say most researchers don’t teach,” Proctor told Crikey, pointing out that the ANU’s high research rankings therefore came in significant part from staff who had little contact with students. “[Teaching] has kind of been something that’s looked at as something that has to be done, so teaching has suffered.”

Teaching varied widely between disciplines, Proctor says. Students have particular concerns about business and economics, where many researchers are non-teaching, so the subject offering is limited. Law and science tutorials are overcrowded, with up to 25 students in a law tute. Some teaching staff are not fluent in English.

Meanwhile, some staff are not happy they had recently become subject to the student evaluation process, which is commonplace at other universities. But while the ANU has a healthy 4200 international students, Proctor says he does not believe marking standards have been in any way lowered to facilitate them.