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From the Chancellery

UniSA Vice Chancellor Professor Peter Høj.Over coming weeks, the world’s attention will focus on the Olympic Games in London.

Apart from the nationalistic fervour it stirs, much of this global extravaganza’s appeal centres on its capacity to deliver definitive verdicts on who ranks first in specific fields of endeavour.

But what evaluation tools are available to assess the various merits of the world’s universities?

For a start, there are the annual global rankings published by organisations such as Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), The Times Higher Education Supplement, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

There are even rankings within rankings, as we saw recently when QS and The Times released their global lists of the best universities aged 50 or less.

The QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ ranked the University of South Australia at number 23 in the world (and number three nationally) for universities less than 50 years old, keeping in mind that we only turned 21 this year.

Overall, Australia led the ‘medals tally’ with a total of 10 institutions on that list, ahead of the United Kingdom (eight) and Spain (four).

We have also seen the introduction of the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) assessment that evaluated the quality of research being undertaken in our universities, and in which 70 per cent of UniSA’s assessed research was rated world class or above.

However, some critics question the fairness of ranking institutions using criteria that can vary from the number of Nobel Prize winners produced, through to the number of times researchers’ work is cited in articles published by fellow academics, without regard to wider societal impacts.

Consequently, 12 Australian universities – including UniSA – are taking part in a pioneering trial headed by the Australian Technology Network and the Group of Eight universities that aims to assess the impact of research conducted across our nation’s higher education sector.

In other words, how effectively recent research projects with public and industry funding have delivered social, economic, cultural or environmental benefits to society.

Between now and the end of August, UniSA will prepare a number of historic case studies that detail the research involved, and the impacts achieved, across four broad sectors – defence, economic development, society and environment.

This trial, which is due to deliver its findings by early 2013, has the potential to significantly influence the way funding is allocated for future research projects.

It is being driven, in part, by the growing international push for universities to better identify and demonstrate the practical contribution their research can make on the most pressing challenges of the 21st century.

That is certainly the case in the UK where the new Research Excellence Framework will explicitly include an assessment of research impact in its 2014 assessment exercise, thereby placing a greater emphasis on matching ‘real world needs’ to funded research projects.

While this potentially represents a shift in the way that future research block funding is allocated, I believe it also provides an exciting opportunity for our university.

UniSA has long prided itself on the important role that our research plays in addressing the needs of civil societies, and to enhancing the level of public discourse in areas of global importance – social policy and sustainability to name just two of many.

These core values are highlighted by the key role we are playing in 12 Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs), which are distinguished by their close collaboration between researchers, government and industry to address ‘real world’ issues such as low carbon living, and ‘greener’ motor vehicles.

In fact, despite our comparative youth we currently sit at number two among Australia’s universities for the amount of federal government funding received through the CRC scheme.

With the trial of this new means of assessing the value of our research, perhaps we can tap into the prevailing Olympic spirit and aspire to another podium finish.