It’s been something of mixed week for Australian higher education – a good result in one area followed by a not-so-good result in another.

In the good area, it was reported in The Australian Higher Education section that the “quality and depth of university research has improved dramatically”, with 23 placings in the top 100 institutions across five broad discipline areas in 2016, up from just 15 in 2007. This was a reference to the recently-released Academic Ranking of World Universities by Broad Subject Fields.

The report said that Australia has particular strengths in social sciences, with seven universities in the top 100, medical sciences with six universities. Five universities, it added, were also listed in both life sciences and engineering, noting a little glumly that “it was only the broad discipline of science that not a single university made the top 100, although nine universities made the top 200”.

For a more detailed breakdown of Australia’s performance in discipline groups see HECG’s own Kylie Colvin’s excellent analysis in Campus Morning Mail.

See also Kylie’s detailed study of Australia’s research results here.

The Australian report quoted Griffith University’s Tony Sheil, who said that while annual rankings provided a snap shot at a point in time, being able to see the change in performance over a decade produced a “more vivid narrative”:

“When the ARWU Field (top 100) rankings were first produced in 2007, Australia had 15 top 100 rankings across the five fields drawn from seven universities — this rose to 23 in 2016 drawn from 10 universities,” Mr Sheil said.

“And when ARWU expanded the list to top 200 in 2012, Australia had 39 top 200 rankings. By 2016 this has grown to 50 top 200 rankings drawn from 20 universities.”

Meanwhile, on the not-so-good side, The Australian reported that drop-out rates at the nation’s universities had reached “record highs, with more than one in five first-year students leaving their chosen course”.

The rise in attrition came, said the report, as domestic student enrolments topped more than one million for the first time in 2014, with an ­increase to 1,076,000 last year.

It quoted Grattan Institute higher education policy expert Andrew ­Norton as saying there was a correlation between drop-out rates and increasing enrolments, particularly among low-ATAR students. Rising numbers of students with poor school performance were behind the rise in the overall attrition.

Norton was quoted as saying that being from a low socio-­economic background itself was not a big predictor of attrition “but it overlaps with other risk factors, including weaker school performance …You’d expect equity statistics and attrition to go up together ­because you are bringing in more people who wouldn’t have gone to university five years ago.”

Which of these two results is the most significant?