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Victorian universities continue to climb global rankings but are forecast to face a grim few years as Australia’s borders remain closed to international students.

The University of Melbourne is one of the top 40 universities in the world, according to one of the most prominent global university ranking tables, while RMIT, Swinburne and La Trobe also improved their positions.

But Victoria’s biggest university, Monash, has moved down in the latest QS World University Rankings, as have Deakin and Victoria universities.

London higher education analysts QS compared more than 1700 universities around the world and ranked them according to academic reputation, employer reputation, citations per faculty, faculty-to- student ratio, and proportion of students and staff who are from other countries.

QS director of research Ben Sowter said Australia’s success in the rankings was based on “outstanding research impact and high levels of internationalisation”.

But Mr Sowter warned that falls in international enrolments, particularly from Australia’s two biggest markets, China and India, would not only present a financial threat to universities but “jeopardise the intellectual diversity and exchange that is causing Australia’s institutions to thrive”.

University of Melbourne higher education expert Frank Larkins said the results captured a boom period for local universities, but the outlook was gloomy as Australia endured its second year of COVID-19 border closures.

“In the period 2010 to 2019, Australian universities did exceptionally well compared with international competitors,” Professor Larkins said. “2020 was very challenging and 2021 and 2022 will be even more difficult.

“[Australian universities] still have an excellent reputation and universities will aim to recover from this situation, but it’s going to be grim for a number of years.”

All Victorian universities asked for voluntary redundancies last year as Australia slammed shut its borders and Prime Minister Scott Morrison told international visitors to go home. More than 7500 people lost their jobs at Victorian public universities in 2020, or 14 per cent of total staff, Professor Larkins and colleague Ian Marshman recently calculated.

In addition, RMIT, Swinburne and La Trobe universities posted multimillion-dollar deficits last year, while Victoria’s other main universities – Melbourne, Deakin, Victoria and Federation – recorded lower surpluses.

Deakin University vice-chancellor Iain Martin recently warned that Victorian international student numbers probably would not recover to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2028.

La Trobe has forecast a $170 million revenue hit this year as international student revenue slumps, while the University of Melbourne has tipped a $290 million shortfall for 2021 alone and losses of close to $900 million over the three years to 2022.

Higher education expert Andrew Norton, from the Australian National University, said the rankings were a snapshot from a previous era and it would take some time before the decline in international students flowed through to university rankings.

Professor Norton said he was not a fan of rankings because they were heavily or entirely based on research, which contributed to a bias within universities towards research over teaching.

“They are also unreliable guides to the undergraduate experience, although they influence international more than domestic students,” he said.

Professor Larkins said rankings had a powerful marketing effect. “If you’re sitting in China or India or Malaysia and you want to send your child to an Australian university and you’re going to have to pay $30,000 to $40,000 a year, you’re going to look for quality.

“So where do you look? The rankings are not perfect, but they actually do influence the decision-making process for many international parents.”

QS ranked 38 Australian universities in this year’s table, the ninth-highest total of any country or territory. Sixteen improved their position, 11 declined, nine were stable, and two – University of the Sunshine Coast and the University of Notre Dame Australia – made their debut.

The country’s highest-ranking university was ANU, at equal 27th. Next was the University of Melbourne (37th), the University of Sydney (38th) and the University of NSW (43rd).

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