Emergent properties

Phil Baty on the institutions creating valuable niches for themselves in a fast-changing environment

June 20, 2013

There is much to be said for the vitality of youth,” says Martin Paul, president of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. “It brings with it a naturally pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit that older institutions have to work hard at to match.”

And Paul should know: Maastricht, just 37 years old, climbed 82 places to 115th position in the 2012-13 Times Higher Education World University Rankings and has now grabbed a top 10 spot in the 2013 100 Under 50, occupying sixth place.

But beyond a certain “vitality”, what’s the secret of Maastricht’s success? “Our position in the THE 100 Under 50 underlines the value of a modern approach to higher education – one where multidisciplinary research and teaching are designed to have a high level of relevance and application to the societal and economic challenges of the 21st century,” Paul says.

“Our programmes produce highly employable graduates for the European and global labour markets, and to many students this is more relevant today than century-old traditions.”

Founded in 1976 in the city now perhaps best known for the treaty that established the European Union in 1992, Maastricht University, one of the youngest of the Netherlands’ 13 public research-intensive institutions, strongly emphasises its international outlook (where it scores highly in the ranking). It bills itself as a fully bilingual university, teaching and publishing in Dutch and English, and boasts that 50 per cent of its 16,000 students hail from abroad.

Its teaching is focused on “problem-based learning” attuned to professional demands, and it has organised its research activities around “socially relevant” themes, including “quality of life” and “a globalising world”, that bring together a range of disciplines and international partners.

“We very much welcome THE’s 100 Under 50 ranking, as we feel it provides timely acknowledgement of the significant contribution that young universities make,” Paul adds.

The institutions listed in the ranking are making contributions in many different ways and in many different countries.

One of the most noticeable things about the list is its diversity: the top 10 alone includes eight countries (compared with just two at the apex of the 2012-13 World University Rankings).

The Republic of Korea has two top 10 representatives: the Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech) retains the top spot, while the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology moves from fifth last year to third. Both benefit from being small, highly focused specialists backed by serious financial muscle.

Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne holds on to second place, while the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology takes fourth. In fifth is the top US institution, the University of California, Irvine.

Maastricht takes sixth, followed by the University of York, the UK’s top-rated 100 Under 50 representative, which has risen one place to seventh. At eighth is Nanyang Technological University, Singapore’s only representative in the table. The top 10 is completed by France’s Université Pierre et Marie Curie in ninth and Université Paris-Sud in 10th.

“The top 10 is very diverse in terms of the countries represented, but there are some clear common features: it is dominated by smaller, specialist technology-focused institutions,” says Simon Pratt, product manager for institutional research at Thomson Reuters, which leads the data collection and analysis process for the THE rankings.

“They benefit from the concentration of resources and clear strategic focus: they may be young but they have created a clear niche for themselves and have developed world-class research quickly.”

The top 100 list includes representatives from 28 countries, but the overall national “winner” in terms of the number of institutions featured is the UK, which has 18 universities in the table.

Seventh-placed York is followed by a close-knit pack: the University of Warwick (13th), Lancaster University (14th) and the University of East Anglia (16th).

Three other British institutions make the top 50: the University of Essex (joint 29th), the University of Bath (joint 34th) and Brunel University (44th).

All these top 50 universities were founded in a three-year window between 1963 (the cut-off date for inclusion in this year’s 100 Under 50) and 1966. This was an era of dramatic expansion in UK higher education, growth already under way by the time of the publication of the 1963 Robbins report. It established the principle that “higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment”.

Malcolm Tight, professor of higher education at Lancaster, says: “Clearly, in the UK and many other countries, there is a general relationship between a university’s age and its perceived standing. Thus, Oxbridge and the older parts of the University of London are typically the highest-rated higher education institutions in the UK, while the most recently established universities tend to be the lowest rated. But the relationship between age and rank is far from perfect.

“For example, several of the campus or ‘plate-glass’ universities established in the 1960s have established reputations that exceed those of some of the older civic ones.”

So how have those UK institutions now celebrating (or set to celebrate) their 50th anniversaries managed to join the ranks of the world-class in such a relatively short time, despite competition from rivals with centuries of history to draw on?

“Well, resources are clearly an issue,” Tight says. The 1960s institutions were backed by substantial public funding driven by a strong post-war sense of the value of investing in knowledge and innovation.

A crucial element in the success of the 1960s institutions was their ability to attract both leading lights from more established universities and early career academics with boundless ambition.

“The key factors are working and living conditions,” Tight says.

The plate-glass institutions tended to have purpose-built, out-of-town greenfield campuses, and were characterised by contemporary architecture (hence the plate-glass label) and impressive facilities.

“Having a reasonably attractive working environment is a major plus – even (or perhaps especially) if it rains most of the time,” Tight says. “But living conditions are also key, including access to the countryside or the sea, cultural facilities, good schools and so on.”

But it is not just the plate-glass institutions that stand out for the UK: three post-1992 universities – the former vocational teaching-focused higher education institutions that were allowed to convert to full university status through legislation in 1992 – make the top 100.

Leading the 1992 pack is Plymouth University, which has risen from 60th last year to joint 53rd. It is followed by the University of Hertfordshire (75th) and Liverpool John Moores University (joint 88th).

Julian Beer, pro vice-chancellor at Plymouth, has studied institutional market strategies under the Enterprising Universities research project, which is backed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. He likens the THE 100 Under 50 to the Alternative Investment Market, which identifies young companies with excellent growth prospects that are not listed on the London Stock Exchange because of capital requirements.

“The 100 Under 50 echoes this by seeking to identify the ‘precocious elite’ that do not necessarily have the historical capital that plays well elsewhere but can mask emerging excellence,” he says.

“While individual institutional movement into the historical elites within higher education could often be described as glacial, when you alter existing criteria or create new ones to capture new economic, societal and cultural value in alternative league tables, the plates can shift surprisingly fast.”

Plymouth has moved quickly, he adds, because it has worked hard to develop a clear, distinctive market niche and focused research activities.

“We embarked on a transformational journey to be the ‘Enterprise University’, with a mission focused on innovation and creativity in teaching, learning and key areas of world-class research,” he says. “This produced high-value outcomes and complemented the university’s role in civic and regional leadership…it offered us the chance to rethink our role and new ways to capture the value of what we do. As we are relatively unburdened by historical baggage, our focus on innovation and agility means that we are emerging strongly against the disruptive influences being experienced by higher education.”

“In short,” he concludes, “distinctiveness is the key.”

In terms of numerical dominance, Australia is the next best represented country in the list, with 13 institutions.

Writing in this 100 Under 50 supplement, Peter Coaldrake, the vice-chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology, points out that Australia’s entries reflect a more diverse system than the UK’s, with institutions established in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s represented. They show that new universities “offer different opportunities and can develop strong research programmes given the right conditions, even in the face of the dominance of their more established colleagues”, he writes.

The US invariably owns the traditional global rankings for the same reason it lags behind in the 100 Under 50 list: because it invested so heavily in research universities at the height of its power post-1945, even its leading younger institutions are disqualified from the table on the grounds of age. Nevertheless, eight of its universities still make the list, putting it third in terms of national representation.

The best young institutions in the US, as was the case last year, are two later additions to the University of California system: UC Irvine (fifth) and UC Santa Cruz (11th).

In a good showing for state institutions, the University of Texas at Dallas, founded in 1969, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, founded in 1965, complete the US’ top 20 representation (in 15th and 19th spot, respectively).

France takes seven top 100 places, although this number includes institutions with longer histories, such as Pierre et Marie Curie. This is eligible for the under 50 list because it was recreated as a substantially new institution in 1971, despite its earlier origins. Paris-Sud, also reinvented in 1971, is a new entrant this year.

Spain, absent from the World University Rankings’ top 200, has six institutions in the 100 Under 50. They are led by the Autonomous University of Barcelona (founded in 1968) in 22nd place and Pompeu Fabra University (established in 1990) in 25th.

Canada’s four representatives, all founded in the 1960s, are led by the University of Victoria in joint 20th position.

David Turpin, its president, says that as a younger institution, Victoria “may have found it easier than old institutions to make strategic choices, reinforcing key areas of strength”.

He adds: “The disadvantage of being a young institution is that reputations take a long time to build and a long time to change. Hence Victoria does well in rankings that have less weight assigned to reputation.”

In many ways the most eye-catching institutions in the list are Asian: four of the top 10 are based in East Asia, and five countries/territories from the region are represented in the overall list, with a total of 13 institutions.

Taiwan takes five top 100 places, led by National Sun Yat-Sen University (37th), while Hong Kong has four and the Republic of Korea two.

Like the leaders of Maastricht and Plymouth, Timothy W. Tong, president of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (joint 34th), attributes his institution’s success to a strong focus on education for the professions and research with real-world applications.

Tong notes that a few key factors have helped to ensure that the older universities dominate traditional global rankings, including a “rich tradition and culture” and an “enduring network of loyal and successful alumni”.

But in a fast-moving 21st-century world, other factors can prevail.

“In today’s rapidly changing globalised economy, it is perhaps more important for a university to have a clear vision, a strategic focus, a dynamic culture, strong leadership and a supportive government,” he says.

These are certainly qualities that many institutions in the 100 Under 50 tables share.

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