Tech challenger universities lead the way on industry links

THE analysis shines a light on institutions that have thought outside the box on research collaboration and funding

May 9, 2017
Bio Robotics at Delft University of Technology
Source: Alamy

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The major problem faced by higher education in the developed world – particularly the West – in the past decade has been adapting to the erosion of public funding as governments, both regional and national, face a cash crisis. 

While elite institutions may be able to rely on their long-established reputations and large pots of research funding, universities outside this group have been forced to be fleet-footed and innovative as they strive for other sources of income. Such institutions have sometimes also been those that are used to driving forward innovative areas of research associated with the technological and digital revolution.

A number of these universities can be identified in the latest analysis by Times Higher Education looking at “clusters” of higher education institutions with similar characteristics.

Although they tend to sit just behind the elite “old stars” and up-and-coming “international powerhouses” in THE’s World University Rankings, the 55 “technology challengers” often have innovation at the core of their strategy, strong industry links and research that excels in technological areas like engineering.

distribution of university scores
THE DataPoints

Among them are universities in South and East Asia such as the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), whose success has been driven to a large extent by close collaboration with, and income from, commercial firms.

However the majority in the list, which was compiled by THE data scientist Billy Wong, hail from Europe, where diversifying income and building links with the private sector have not always come naturally but have become increasingly important in the face of public funding budget cuts.

École Polytechnique, the highest-ranked French institution in the list, has strength in fields such as engineering and physical sciences that have led to collaborations with large multinational firms such as Fujitsu and Thales. According to its president, Jacques Biot, universities must be attuned to industry if they are to flourish in the present environment. 

“I definitely see governments as not being able to funnel more money…into higher education and research and maybe [it will be] less money because they will have more demands. We will fight for the maintenance of public support but if we want to grow…we have to get geared [up] to find money from all types of…source,” he said.

For Mr Biot, working with industry is not just about finding new sources of income either; it is about universities learning how to use the “disruptive technology” now common in the commercial world, students spending time learning in the workplace and encouraging philanthropy among firms.

“I see higher education to some extent as a business because it is highly competitive and it’s highly capital intensive. For this reason I am extremely attentive to what is happening in other industries,” he said.

Anka Mulder, vice-president for education and operations at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands – another institution high up the technology challengers list – said her institution had a “long history of working with industry”.

However, as well as such links being about funding and strategy, she also emphasised the importance of creating a “culture of cooperation” among students and academics that influenced the wider world. 

On engineering – where Delft comes 20th in the world in THE’s subject ranking – there is a focus on “engineering for society”, which informs both the degree curriculum and the nature of research projects. 

On research, Dr Mulder referred to Delft’s work in setting up the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions together with Wageningen University & Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to “work on sustainable urban solutions together with our university partners and industry”.

An emphasis on engineering and other research solutions that impact society – and link into industry – is also evident at institutions outside Europe.

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Timothy Tong, president of one of the Asian institutions on the list, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, highlighted the former technical college's collaboration with Boeing to set up an aviation research centre in Hong Kong that has developed new automation technology for aircraft maintenance. 

He said close ties with companies allowed the university to “always keep abreast of the problems faced by industries, secure support from the field in the various stages of development, trial and implementation, and deliver timely solutions for the benefit of the community”.

There are 12 universities from North America on the list – eight in the US and four in Canada – which share the enthusiasm for slightly different ways of thinking about the culture and purpose of a university.

One of those is the University of Waterloo, which runs one of the most successful programmes in the world for students spending part of their degree working in industry, using an approach known in Canada as cooperative education

For George Dixon, Waterloo’s vice-president for research, the cooperative programme is far from being just about an experiential way of learning for students – it is also a key that unlocks the commercial world to the university in many other ways.

“When you have students who are going out to [thousands of] different employers…you have got the basis for a door opener with the private sector right there,” he said. “Nobody likes a cold call so any opportunity you get to get a foot in the door is an opportunity to grow."

It is not just a local door opener either. Of the almost 6,700 employers that now take part in Waterloo’s cooperative programmes, 2,600 are outside Canada, which gives the university a massive international reach, both commercially and with other universities abroad too.

Companies involved with the cooperative programme that have been the catalyst for this kind of international research collaboration have included IBM, Cisco Systems and General Motors.

“Often if you are working with a large multinational company, they will have partnerships with universities in other countries," Professor Dixon pointed out.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.commap of tech challenger universities

Full list of 55 tech challenger universities, ranked by overall score in THE World University Rankings 

University Country/region WUR rank
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Singapore 54
Delft University of Technology Netherlands 59
RWTH Aachen University Germany =78
Technical University of Berlin Germany =82
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) South Korea =89
Pohang University of Science and Technology South Korea =104
École Polytechnique France =116
City University of Hong Kong Hong Kong 119
Pierre and Marie Curie University France =121
University of Western Australia Australia 125
Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa Italy =137
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology Germany =144
University of Science and Technology of China China =153
University of Twente Netherlands =153
KTH Royal Institute of Technology Sweden 159
University of Erlangen-Nuremberg Germany 160
TU Dresden Germany 164
University of Waterloo Canada =173
Technical University of Denmark Denmark 176
Eindhoven University of Technology Netherlands 177
Paris-Sud University France 179
Northeastern University United States =182
Hong Kong Polytechnic University Hong Kong =192
University of Calgary Canada =195
Aalborg University Denmark 201—250
Aalto University Finland 201—250
University of Delaware United States 201—250
Université Libre de Bruxelles Belgium 201—250
North Carolina State University United States 201—250
Polytechnic University of Milan Italy 201—250
Queen’s University Canada 201—250
Queensland University of Technology Australia 201—250
Simon Fraser University Canada 201—250
University of Stuttgart Germany 201—250
TU Darmstadt Germany 201—250
University of Trento Italy 201—250
University of Bath United Kingdom 251—300
Chalmers University of Technology Sweden 251—300
Mines ParisTech France 251—300
Norwegian University of Science and Technology Norway 251—300
Ruhr University Bochum Germany 251—300
University of Surrey United Kingdom 251—300
Syracuse University United States 251—300
University of Tennessee, Knoxville United States 251—300
Vienna University of Technology Austria 251—300
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University United States 251—300
University of Bremen Germany 301—350
Colorado State University United States 301—350
Linköping University Sweden 301—350
University of Milan Italy 301—350
University of Padua Italy 301—350
Technion Israel Institute of Technology Israel 301—350
Iowa State University United States 351—400
Polytechnic University of Turin Italy 351—400
University of Pisa Italy 401—500


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