International study specialist, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), released its 2012 World University Rankings this week. Four Australian universities are in the top 50: ANU (24), Melbourne (36), Sydney (39) and Queensland (46).

Exhibit: QS ranking of world’s 50 best cities for students (click to view list)

More interesting to me though is QS also has a top 50 ranking of the Best student cities in the world in 2012. Australia does well with all five mainland capitals in the top 30: Melbourne (4), Sydney (6), Brisbane (22), Perth (25), Adelaide (29).

QS began with a list of 98 cities which each have a minimum population of 250,000 and at least two ranked educational institutions. It then applied 12 indicators in 5 categories:

  • World ranking of the city’s universities
  • Student mix – essentially the number of international students studying at the city’s ranked institutions
  • Quality of living – a score based on the Mercer Quality of Living Survey
  • Employer activity – essentially a measure of employers’ assessments of the quality of graduates from the city’s ranked institutions
  • Affordability – based primarily on tuition fees, but also the Big Mac Index and the Mercer Cost of Living Index.

It pays to be careful with these sorts of rankings because combining disparate indicators into a single summary statistic is fraught. For example, like similar exercises, this one gives most indicators equal weighting. It’s also arguable that Mercer’s Quality of Living Index truly measures what’s important to students about a city.

So with that caveat in mind, it’s reassuring to see that only Paris, London and Boston rank ahead of Melbourne. And those four plus Vienna are the only ones that rank ahead of Sydney.

That’s good company. Boston has Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis and Northeastern. London has Imperial, UCL and LSE.

Paris is the odd one out. It doesn’t have a global top 30 university, but it has more institutions in the overall rankings than any other city and, importantly, has remarkably low average tuition fees.

So according to QS, Melbourne and Sydney are better places to be a student than the likes of New York, San Francisco and Zurich. Brisbane and Perth are better than Toronto and along with Adelaide rank higher than Vancouver, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Washington DC.

Australian cities score particularly well on Student Mix. All five are in the top eight and Melbourne is the world’s leading city on this indicator.

They don’t do quite as well on Quality of Living because QS use the Mercer Index. Australian cities generally do better on the Economist Intelligence Unit scale – it currently ranks Melbourne as the world’s most liveable city. Even so, Sydney ranks sixth and Melbourne tenth (the top city is Vienna).

They don’t score among the leaders on Employer Activity either, but nevertheless perform solidly. Melbourne is ranked tenth and Sydney fifteenth (the top city is Singapore).

The high ranking of Australia’s universities on the QS index is in spite of their very low rating on the Affordability indicator. Sydney and Melbourne are the least affordable of all 50 cities for students (Cairo is most affordable).

Tuition fees are one reason – average annual fees in Sydney are $25,800 compared to $2,300 in Paris. That expense is exacerbated by the high exchange rate. The cost of living in Australian cities, particularly accommodation, is also high.

If Melbourne were as affordable as Paris, or at the average of affordability for all 50 cities, it would be the leading city in the world for students overall on the QS ranking.

If Sydney could lift its Affordability score from lowest place to the top quartile – which would put it alongside cities like Shanghai, Berlin, Munich, Helsinki and Lyon – it would be the top ranked city in the world overall.

Yet affordability isn’t the prime determinant of a city’s attractiveness for students, at least so far as the QS Index is concerned. All the world’s leading cities do well overall despite either average or lacklustre scores on the Affordability indicator.

Paris scores around the average of the 50 cities on this indicator (given its very low tuition fees, that suggests other costs matter a lot). Both London and Boston score below average (Boston’s mean annual tuition fee is $39,600!).

Australian cities are at or near the bottom on affordability, but score best on their openness to overseas students and on their quality of life. The latter are qualities that make them good places for non-students too.