Young blood: the invigorating force of new universities

Fleet-footed and innovative, fledgling institutions are well placed to nurture attributes that will be key in future rankings, says Peter Coaldrake

March 10, 2016
Michael Parkin illustration (10 March 2016)
Source: Michael Parkin

Friedrich Nietzsche once said “the surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently”. This is an observation that young universities need to bear very firmly in mind, particularly when considering the international league tables.

Approximately 80 per cent of institutions occupying the top 400 positions of Times Higher Education’s latest World University Rankings were founded more than 50 years ago, with most established more than a century ago. In light of that, it may seem natural to assume that an ambitious young university should seek to emulate as closely as possible what the older institutions are already doing.

Many young universities are already highly successful when evaluated using the traditional rankings’ criteria for success; the flip side of the above statistics is that approximately 20 per cent of universities in the THE top 400 were founded within the past 50 years. These institutions have rapidly forged strong research performance – which is one of the chief drivers of ranking position – and are seeing commensurate reputational gains – which is another.

But newer universities arguably have one key advantage over older institutions, which the high-flyers are also leveraging in order to challenge the traditional order and to attain an increasingly significant and future-shaping role for society. That is that they are less ossified in their habits and hopefully, therefore, are more agile and engaged with the challenges of tomorrow, addressing them with new transdisciplinary perspectives and using technology in ways that both innovate and respond to the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Young universities also perform very well in terms of international connectivity, industry linkages and employability of graduates. Importantly, their attainment of excellence often goes hand in hand with a commitment to social justice and access. For example, my institution, the Queensland University of Technology (founded in 1989 and ranked in the 251-300 bracket in THE’s World University Rankings) is well ahead of the Australian pack in building a major endowment for disadvantaged student scholarships. This initiative, our Learning Potential Fund, also attracts the support of 600 staff, who make fortnightly donations to it from their pay packets.

The success of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore – 55th in the World University Rankings, and founded in 1991 – also demonstrates what can be achieved in a short space of time through strong leadership, national investment, renewal of academic capacity, rewarding academic excellence and fostering key international and industry partnerships.

But rankings success is not a substitute for effective strategy within a university. Rankings are valuable for their indicative guidance, but as standards for comparison they are necessarily limited by the availability, accuracy, choice and prioritisation of the underpinning metrics. They do not reflect all the key purposes of contemporary institutions and their specificity is lessened by issues around the availability and consistency of data and the difficulty of encompassing the full and diverse value propositions offered by institutions.

The outlook for higher education is likely to include the steady repositioning of institutions based on their capacity to differentiate themselves, innovate and engage with broader societal change in an era in which knowledge is increasingly ubiquitous, fluid and unbounded. All universities will need to nurture hard-to-measure attributes that are not yet sufficiently reflected in rankings, such as learning gain and community impact.

Some of the older institutions will embrace this future, and flourish in it. But others may struggle to face up to it, and to evolve legacy structures, processes and traditions that date from a bygone era, when universities were designed to contain knowledge within their own boundaries. Newer players will not be subject to the same level of inertia. Hence, while older institutions have so far preferred to confine serious collaboration to institutions of their own vintage, they may find that they have more to gain than they currently imagine from forging deep relationships with select young institutions.

Such tie-ups would allow them to benefit from both their own established strengths and reputations and the freer, more innovative approach of the younger generation of universities.

Peter Coaldrake is vice-chancellor and president of Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Australia. He is a keynote speaker at the THE Young Universities Summit in Barcelona from 5 to 7 April.

The summit, which will take place at Pompeu Fabra University, will see the unveiling of THE’s latest 150 Under 50 Ranking for universities under 50 years of age by Phil Baty, THE’s rankings editor. Speakers will also include Hugo Sonnenschein, president emeritus of the University of Chicago; David Sweeney, director of research, education and knowledge exchange at the Higher Education Funding Council for England; and Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of the University Alliance. It will also feature the leaders of Pompeu Fabra, Dublin City University, Carlos III University of Madrid, Staffordshire University, the University of Ulsan in South Korea and Chile’s Diego Portales University.

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