31 May 2012
The 1960s universities rose to prominence on the back of savvy leadership and a firm commitment to research, argues Paul Wellings
In his Memoir of a Thinking Radish: An Autobiography (1986), Nobel prizewinner Sir Peter Medawar recalled the University of Birmingham at the time of his appointment to its chair of zoology in 1947. After 15 years at the University of Oxford, Medawar was surprised by the institution's lack of ceremony and tradition, the presence of businessmen on its council and its willingness to engage with the local community.
Newer institutions are often criticised by the established elite, but times change and so do reputations: the Birmingham that so surprised Medawar in the late 1940s is now in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings top 200. It was founded in 1900, and by the time Medawar took up his post it was already maturing into a significant university.
Fast-forward to 2012 and the universities established in the 1960s are about the same age as Birmingham was when Medawar joined. In their first half-century, some of these institutions have made outstanding progress.
Bath, Lancaster, Loughborough, Surrey, Sussex, Warwick and York universities in the UK and Griffith, James Cook, La Trobe, Macquarie, Newcastle and Wollongong universities in Australia have all shown that great research can be found in many places.
Some mission groups argue that in an environment with limited resources, governments should allocate funding directly to selected institutions - usually defined by some mixture of age, prestige and scale.
While many older institutions are excellent, younger ones can rise to the highest levels, too.
The data suggest that the long-term policy of successive governments in the UK - funding research excellence wherever it is found - remains a winning strategy. It has had the effect of recognising the quality of research in the 1960s universities and has been a key driver in the development of their international reputations.
There is a strong argument to suggest that the destiny of these newer universities was shaped by their starting conditions. For example, Lancaster University's lineage and strength in, say, computing, environmental sciences, physics and sociology can be traced back to the decisions made by its first vice-chancellor, Sir Charles Carter, in concert with persuasive foundation professors. All this suggests that success is positively correlated with the quality of academic appointments: recruiting the best matters.
The 1960s universities have also invested heavily in the development of all categories of student. For example, Australia's The Good Universities Guide consistently ranks the University of Wollongong at the highest levels for undergraduate student satisfaction and graduate destinations, but doctoral students are also deeply embedded in its fabric. Its completion rate of PhDs per 100 academics ranks sixth in Australia and is competitive globally.
A large proportion of 1960s universities have dynamic and highly productive graduate schools that drive the volume of their research and are cornerstones of their competitiveness.
The location of the post-war universities has shaped their character, too. At Wollongong, the presence of the steel and coal industries has underpinned research in engineering and materials sciences, a relationship with industry that it has leveraged into a broader agenda of community and schools engagement. For this, THE recognised Wollongong as Commonwealth University of the Year in 2006.
As the quality of the post- war universities has become evident, some institutions have set out to create distinctive centres of excellence, often backed up with substantial infrastructure investment. Wollongong has developed the Sydney Business School, the SMART Infrastructure Research Institute, the Illawarra Medical and Health Research Institute and the Innovation Campus. The intent is to create a differentiated set of facilities to collaborate with an international network.
The post-war campus universities have been successful in many ways. In Australia and the UK, they were founded because of growing demand to increase the number of highly skilled graduates. Their success as research-led universities has been achieved not because they are long established or very large, but rather because the best of them have been very shrewd. They recruited great academics, understood the factors driving the regional economy and community, and built infrastructure that has made them distinctive in their commitment to research and student engagement.
There is much to learn from these institutions as global higher education undergoes another cycle of change and a new generation of academics, with different expectations and experiences, takes the helm.