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The 100 Under 50 universities are marked by their energy, innovation and fearless approach to the future, write Phil Baty and Katie Duncan

April 29, 2015
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Australia has overtaken the UK to become the number one nation in the Times Higher Education 100 Under 50 Rankings 2015.

The two countries shared top spot last year with 14 institutions each, but Australia has pulled ahead with 16 representatives in the list of the world’s best universities under 50 years of age.

It’s not all bad news for the UK, however: it comes second with 15 universities, itself an improvement on the 2014 figure.

So what is the secret of Antipodean success?

“A feature of the Australian system is the number of universities placed in global rankings relative to total system size,” says Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education.

“This is because there is a large group of rising ‘middle-class’ institutions – in the middle in terms of resources, research intensity and student demand.”

These young, upwardly mobile institutions may sit below Australia’s traditional research-led elite, as represented by the Group of Eight coalition, but their future looks bright nevertheless, argues Marginson, thanks in large part to the strong foundations laid in the 1980s by John Dawkins, the former Labor minister for employment, education and training.

His reforms, sometimes labelled the “Dawkins Revolution”, were designed to improve the international competitiveness of Australia’s academy. They included converting the country’s Colleges of Advanced Education (originally designed to provide vocational postsecondary qualifications) into universities and introducing market forces into the system.

The Dawkins reforms were the “key moment”, says Marginson, as they rebuilt the Australian academy on competitive and entrepreneurial lines.

He continues: “Institutional leaders were freed to form their own missions and strategies, supported by income earned through international student fees, vocational postgraduate programmes and industry consultancy. It has been a struggle as the Group of Eight has maintained control over two-thirds of the research dollars, but over time the middle institutions, which vary markedly in size, have developed a range of localised strategies, such as Curtin University’s large-scale offshore doctoral programme. Some of their vocational programmes are in very high demand with school-leavers, especially in niche areas of applied sciences, health and engineering, and fields such as design.”

Marginson adds: “Some of the 100 Under 50 institutions have also been notable innovators in curriculum terms, such as the Queensland University of Technology in postgraduate law and Newcastle and Flinders universities in medicine. As their research has developed, the under 50s have also developed their role in the international market, especially in relation to China and Southeast Asia: Curtin, RMIT University, the University of Technology, Sydney and Swinburne University all earn more than 20 per cent of their income from international student fees.”

Renee Hindmarsh is chief executive of the Australian Technology Network, a group of five institutions that all make the 100 Under 50 list, including the country’s top-ranked institution, the University of Technology, Sydney (21st).

Hindmarsh says that although youth does not confer the reputational and financial benefits enjoyed by ancient institutions, it has its advantages in a fast-moving global higher education sector, not least in ensuring a focused and applied approach to research and a willingness to innovate in teaching.

She adds: “The ATN’s research and teaching strengths are directly related to our strong links with industry to deliver practical results. Over the past five years, more than 70 per cent of our research funding has come from industry.

“Although our institutions are young, we have already carved out a reputation for producing world-class research in applied areas and translating it into tangible results. Some examples include developing a flotation model that has increased the recovery and quality of minerals from fine and coarse particles, estimated as adding almost A$1 billion [£520 million] in total industry benefit, and using biofortification to increase the nutritional content of bananas to improve the health of East African nations.”

On teaching, Hindmarsh says: “Young universities such as ours also tend to be early adopters of technology and are willing to embrace new ways of teaching to cultivate well-rounded graduates who have the necessary skills for the modern workforce.

“The ATN universities champion the principles of access and equity in everything we do. As well as providing industry with tailored and responsive research solutions, our practical approach to learning and engagement with industry has delivered the highest graduate employment rates in Australia. As our society embraces the concept of lifelong learning, our institutions are well placed to continue to thrive.”

Australia is not the only nation to shine in this year’s 100 Under 50. Overall, 28 countries make the list, down from 29 last year: India, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia drop out, passed by Macau and Morocco on the way in.

The US, utterly dominant in the traditional rankings, has seven top 100 representatives, a performance matched by Germany. Their top-ranked institutions are the University of California, Irvine (seventh) and Ulm University (15th), respectively.

Spain, in contrast to its poor showing in the THE World University Rankings, is also a strong performer in the 100 Under 50 list, with six representatives led by Barcelona-based Pompeu Fabra University (12th).

“Our youth and small size are distinguishing features compared with the other universities around us,” says its rector, Jaume Casals.

He boasts that the institution produces more research, gains more citations and has won more European Research Council grants than any of its domestic competitors.

“That’s quite remarkable because we have existed for only 25 years and we’re one of the smallest universities in Spain,” Casals says.

Small is effective, he argues. It allows Pompeu Fabra to focus on the following highly specialised areas: social sciences and humanities; health and life sciences; and communication and information technology. It also facilitates a flat management structure: “We have a simple organisation that we are working to simplify even further,” he adds.

The Autonomous University of Barcelona (29th), Pompeu Fabra’s neighbour in the Catalonian capital, also boasts a flexible management approach.

“The youth of the university allows for more vibrant risk-taking,” says its rector, Ferran Sancho Pifarré. “Flexibility is at the centre of the decision-making process.”

Next in the national honour roll is Spain’s neighbour France, which has five top 100 institutions, led by Paris-Sud University (10th) (Pierre and Marie Curie University is hot on its heels in 11th position).

But the best-represented European country is the UK, led by the University of Warwick (ninth).

Sir Nigel Thrift, Warwick’s vice-chancellor, believes that the 50-year-old university’s “habit of being innovative” has helped it reach extraordinary heights in mere decades.

Thrift points to a host of eye-catching internationally focused innovations that have helped Warwick to stay one step ahead of many competitors: it set up a pioneering strategic alliance with Australia’s Monash University in 2011, which offers joint research appointments, joint PhD programmes and joint bids for international research grants; in 2012 it became one of six partners that collaborated to establish the Center for Urban Science and Progress in Brooklyn, New York; it made a bold statement in 2014 when it established a base in London, 100 or so miles from its Coventry home, in Europe’s tallest building, the Shard; and earlier this year, Warwick announced its intention to set up a campus in California as part of its “successful strategy to develop as a globally networked university”.

“There is no such thing as a university that can stand still,” Thrift argues. “We hope that we are moving ahead in a way that is interesting and keeps to the values of academic excellence and relevance to the economy and the nation.”

This sense of dynamism, a refusal to stand still, pervades the culture of many 100 Under 50 institutions.

Bernd Scholz-Reiter is rector of the University of Bremen (26th), one of only 11 German institutions that receive additional funding under the country’s Excellence Initiative. He says that being successful while young – “no easy task” – requires teamwork.

“Above all, it’s about communication and collaboration,” he says. “It means focusing on our strong points sooner and more intensively than larger traditional universities, establishing a clear research profile and allocating limited resources to develop it. It means paying careful attention to each new appointment and flexibility in the designation of faculty chairs. It means moving quickly when we see a chance to develop – a new funding initiative, an offer from a partner institute, a talented young researcher.”

These sentiments are echoed by Elizabeth Cannon, vice-chancellor of Canada’s University of Calgary (22nd, the country’s top-ranked representative).

“When people set foot on our campus, the first thing they talk about is the energy and the passion,” she says. “It’s not just a vision, it’s a call to action: when people know that this is the institution that can get things done, that’s very inspiring. I think although we’re young, that creates a sense of optimism and a sense of empowerment that nothing can hold us back, that it’s up to us to deliver.”

As the THE 100 Under 50 2015 testifies, these young universities are delivering in spades.

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