A change in ranking methodology has vaulted two more universities into the global top 100, giving Australia a record six institutions in education's most prestigious list.
Monash University and the University of Sydney were the big winners, going from outside the top 100 to 79th and 82nd place respectively in the 2016 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) released on Monday,
The University of Queensland cemented its position as the most rapid improver among Australia's top universities by lifting to 55th place from 77th last year. It is now beginning to challenge Australia's most highly ranked institution, the University of Melbourne, which is at 40th place.
Asian parents are heavily influenced by rankings in selecting universities for their children. University of Queensland vice chancellor Peter Hoj said the result was "incredibly good" for Australia's higher education exports which are now worth $19 billion a year.
Australia's record performance is largely due to a change in the way the Chinese-based ARWU, often known as the Shanghai ranking, measures the number of highly-cited researchers in a particularly university. Thomson Reuters, which supplies the data on research paper citations, has switched to a new measure and now counts only the highly-cited work of a narrow group of top researchers judged by their recent papers.
The change, now fully embedded after being introduced over two years, has roiled the Shanghai rankings which, until now, has been noted for its consistency. Monash and the universities of Queensland and Sydney received a large boost from the change and Melbourne got a small lift. But it prevented the Australian National University rising above its 2015 ranking of 77th.
The University of WA, which just scraped into the top 100 at 96th, was not much affected by the change.
Professor Hoj supported the change in methodology. "It now reflects who you have on staff now [who is good] as opposed to who you have who was once very good," he said.
The Academic Ranking of World Universities, often known as the Shanghai ranking, rates universities solely on their output of high-level research, with science, maths and medicine taking precedence over other disciplines. It does not measure teaching quality or the employability of university graduates.
Two Chinese universities which have been knocking on the door of the Shanghai top 100 received a massive boost from the change in the way research citations are measured. In a very strong performance Tsinghua University went straight to 58th, and Peking University entered the list at 71st.
The methodology change also benefited Singapore which saw one of its universities reach the top 100 for the first time. The National University of Singapore, long recognised as south-east Asia's best academic institution, entered the list at 83rd.
Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham congratulated the universities which had improved their ranking.
"The improvements follow recent evidence from six global surveys over six years that demonstrate that the balance of power in higher education and research is shifting to our region," he said.
1. Melbourne (40th)
2. Queensland (55th)
3. ANU (77th)
4. Monash (79th)
5. Sydney (82nd)
6. Western Australia (96th)
10. University of Chicago