After a decade of international university rankings, such exercises are still bedevilled by technical points and definitional issues, but some clear signals cut through. Research is the main driver because it is the activity that can be most easily measured in an internationally standardised manner. Research scores in turn depend on the past performance of top scholars, who understandably tend to be attracted to places that have established research reputations, so past success reinforces future prospects and history and circumstances matter.
The annual parade of university rankings have both described and bolstered this picture. While there has been some volatility further down the lists – owing as much to the peculiarities of ranking methods as to material changes in university performance – the top ends remain strongly dominated by the same names from the US and the UK. This is not surprising. However, it does mask some fundamentally important developments in global higher education and misleads us about the level of diversity, innovation and dynamism that may be found across the world’s universities.
The publication of a top 100 ranking of institutions under the age of 50 provides one opportunity to rebalance this view. Universities tend to be hierarchical and meritocratic so such lists always run the risk of being seen as consolation prizes, but closer examination of the Times Higher Education 100 Under 50 shows that new universities are not just pale imitations of Oxbridge or the Ivy League.
The effects of age are still apparent. About half the institutions on the list were established before 1970 and nearly a quarter more within the five years from that date. Twenty-four of them were established in just two years, 1965 and 1966 – 24 months squarely situated within the golden age of university construction, particularly in the Western world.
Age is not the only factor, however. National policy also matters, as does the prominence of particular fields of research, notably in medicine and science. The impact of relatively recent state support for scientific research in a number of Asian universities can clearly be seen.
The first, third and fourth positions in this year’s table are occupied by the Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech), the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (both South Korean institutions) and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, respectively. All are relatively small in terms of student numbers by international standards and all are academically specialised, as their names indicate.
Like several new universities in Asia, their growth has been remarkable but their strengths have been obscured by rankings based solely on overall research metrics, such as Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities (where Postech, for example, does not feature in the top 300).
Interesting comparisons can be made between Australian and UK institutions in the table.
Twenty-two UK universities were established between 1962 and 1969, of which 15 are listed in the top 100. After 1969, few universities were established until the abolition of the binary system in 1992, when 38 “new” universities were created (recently joined by 10 specialist institutions awarded university title).
However, only three of the post-1992s feature in the 100 Under 50.
Likewise in Australia, most of the universities less than 50 years old established before the end of the binary system in the late 1980s appear in the top 100 list, but, unlike in the UK, so too do five of the 18 post-binary institutions. This may reflect the stronger emphasis on research concentration in the UK, as well as the greater amalgamation of old and new universities that took place in Australia’s post-binary environment.
Four of those five universities are members of the Australian Technology Network, an alliance of institutions with similar backgrounds and emphases that formed in the early days of the post-binary system.
The network’s agenda aimed to explore closer collaboration: the fact that each member came from different states both hindered this process, because of the sheer distances involved, and helped it, because competitive pressures were more contextualised.
The ATN has assumed an active lobbying role to highlight the value of new universities and to contribute to national policy – an aspect that has evident parallels with the UK sector.
ATN members share many of the features of more established universities and have broadly similar aims related to spreading the benefits of education and research. Where they differ is in their strategic emphases: applied and cross-disciplinary research and professional education are major focuses. A similar emphasis may be observed, for example, in Germany’s Universität Bielefeld, which goes so far as to drive interdisciplinarity by housing all its academic activities under one roof.
In the UK and Australia, financial crises in the mid-1970s and the move to tighter management of public finances in the 1980s drove rationing as well as expansion, plus a gradual tightening of conditions within state universities.
Selectivity has been a necessity from the start for post-binary universities in both countries: in Australia, for example, some ATN members have moved away from traditional arts and humanities structures to ones oriented towards the creative industries while strengthening links to disciplinary offerings such as engineering and design.
No ATN university has a medical school, although the institutions are active in various areas of health education and research.
New universities offer different opportunities and can develop strong research programmes given the right conditions, despite the dominance of their more established colleagues. Many emphasise impact and applied research, and are pioneering innovative courses and partnerships.
The scale of support being provided in a number of Asian countries suggests that new universities in the region will in time make real gains in the overall top university lists. But ranking is a zero-sum game, and focusing on how far new universities might climb a ladder dominated by the accumulation of traditional research is less important than awareness of the contribution that can be made by institutions with fresh approaches to tackling the major problems of our time.
We are in the throes of tapping into more than just a small fraction of the world’s intellectual resources, and that calls for wider, not narrower, nets.
THE 100 Under 50
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