Free from tradition and baggage, a wave of upstarts are challenging their elders. Phil Baty investigates
There are many disadvantages to being a young university, says Yongmin Kim, president of the Pohang University of Science and Technology (commonly known as Postech) in the Republic of Korea.
For one thing, such institutions "lack tradition and an ingrained culture of academic excellence", and do not have extensive alumni networks to rely on to raise funds and build reputations.
Of course, there are many advantages, too: younger universities are free from the "tradition and baggage" of the ancient elites; they can be "more flexible and dynamic"; and perhaps most significantly of all, it is easier for them to rigorously apply what Kim calls a "selection and concentration" strategy.
Such advantages have helped Postech to scale extraordinary heights in a remarkably short time. Founded just 26 years ago, it was ranked 53rd in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2011-12. Today it takes the crown as the world's number one university under the age of 50 - top of the inaugural THE 100 Under 50.
How is it possible to develop such world-class provision across THE's 13 performance indicators in research, teaching, knowledge transfer and globalisation in such a short time?
For Kim, the most important factor is talent - "the high quality of faculty who joined during the formative stage, who in turn attracted outstanding students".
It also helps that Pohang, a private institution, was developed with serious investment from Posco, one of the world's largest steel companies, plus support from the Republic of Korea's government at a time of astonishing industrial development and economic growth in the country.
This climate also contributed to the success of the Republic of Korea's other top-five 100 Under 50 institution, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) (in fifth place).
Kim's baggage-free "selection and concentration" strategy must not be underestimated either: Postech is tiny. With just 270 faculty members, the university admits only 320 undergraduates a year. Its resources are focused on a small number of research fields, and its intimate environment facilitates a highly personalised, hands-on, research-led experience for students, he says.
"The programmes allow our future scientists and engineers to develop their own idea, pursue it, experience successes and frustration, and understand what real research is like," says Kim. "This is very important to prepare them properly to become future leaders."
Future leaders in global higher education - this is just what the THE 100 Under 50 is about.
A small number of institutions in the list already rank among the world's elite alongside Postech.
Taking second place among the under-50s is Switzerland's École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), which is 46th in the overall World University Rankings; the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, in third place, is 62nd in the traditional league table; the fourth-placed institution, the University of California, Irvine, is 86th overall; and KAIST is fifth in the 100 Under 50 rankings and joint 94th overall.
But only the top 19 of the 100 Under 50 table made the World University Rankings' top 200. For the remainder, their appearance in the new rankings may be more of a signal of their potential than their current status.
"These results are interesting because they give us a glimpse of the likely future Harvards and Berkeleys," says Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick and a visiting fellow at the IZA Institute, Bonn. "Most empires eventually crumble, especially those that think it could never happen to them, and once upon a time both Harvard and Berkeley were derided as Nowheresville.
"These data give us a sense of perspective."
One of the most striking things about the 100 Under 50 is its diversity. While the top 10 of the World University Rankings is comprised of representatives from only two nations - the US and the UK - the under-50 equivalent features no fewer than six countries: the Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Hong Kong, the US, France and the UK. Overall, the top 100 list showcases universities from 30 countries (compared with 26 in the top 200 of the overall table).
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, says that the World University Rankings are dominated by a small number of long-established players "because status markets (like higher education) change slowly".
The US and the UK were the dominant global powers in the 19th and 20th centuries and were two of the three nations (with Germany, whose infrastructure was wiped out during the Second World War) that led the development of the modern research universities that dominate traditional rankings, he says.
"The under-50 list reflects the development of higher education systems in many economically advanced countries and the underlying trend to a more plural map of geostrategic-economic power in the world. Over time the [World University Rankings] top 100 will become more plural too - but quite slowly."
Despite the greater diversity among the 100 Under 50, the UK, a traditional powerhouse, also dominates the new list with the most representatives - some 20 institutions.
The UK has three of the top 10 slots. Its top institution is the University of York, in eighth place, followed by Lancaster University (ninth) and the University of East Anglia (10th). The University of Warwick - a 1960s institution like York, Lancaster and UEA - just misses a top 10 spot (13th).
For Jonathan Adams, director of research and development at Thomson Reuters, the company that collects and analyses Times Higher Education's rankings data, the UK dominates because the country was at the forefront of "the post-1945 consensus about the essential economic role of knowledge and innovation, particularly in science and technology".
He says: "The rapid rise of the UK's new campuses in the 1960s was spurred by substantial public investment and the early recruitment of very bright young stars. The national system needed to expand and it could do so on the back of available competency as well as new campuses. There was also a ready supply of competent students in the school-leaving population and the government was willing to invest in their fees."
For Adams, the UK's position in the 100 Under 50 may have been helped by the fact that it was already blessed with established universities when the 1960s institutions were created, which were able to supply "pret-a-porter academics to staff new departments and get research programmes rolling. New campuses may be rather attractive to rising stars, especially if they can get their own research laboratory in congenial surroundings."
But in some environments, a network of established institutions may stifle the development of the new, Adams suggests (for example, if it is capable of absorbing any growth in student numbers).
"Most of Switzerland's universities were in existence by 1900, and only EPFL enters the under-50 table, where it is strongly placed," he notes.
Adams points out that there is a heavy institutional emphasis on technology at the top of the 100 Under 50 list: Postech, EPFL (which describes itself as Europe's most cosmopolitan technical university), plus HKUST, KAIST, UC Irvine (which has a strong technological record) and the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie.
"So across regions, the leading young universities are also niche institutions that have received substantial public - and private - investment because of their direct links to essential economic objectives," says Adams. "Their rank shows how well they have used that investment to establish their strong position in such a short time."
Australia is another outstanding performer, with 14 institutions among the 100 Under 50, making it the second-strongest nation on the list.
Australia's under-50s are led by Macquarie University (founded in 1964) and the University of Wollongong (1975), which share 33rd place. Queensland University of Technology follows (40th) in a group that includes most members of the Australian Technology Network of Universities.
For Marginson, the 50-year span of the 100 Under 50 captures a key stage of system-building in Australian higher education: 1962 to 1975, when nine institutions were created. "The 'world-class' part of the Australian system was nearly all founded or modernised in the 1960s or early 1970s," he says. "That was the key time. It was then that the research system and culture were largely established, including comprehensive doctoral training. It was then that the Australian universities ceased to be an offshoot of the British system."
As elsewhere, Marginson believes, funding and people were key to the success of these institutions.
"All the universities begun in the 1962-75 period were funded generously by later standards, including substantial funding for building comprehensive capacity in basic research. Some of them made extraordinary progress in a short time, particularly because they attracted younger, innovative professors from Australia and abroad. For a while it looked like Monash University (founded in 1958) and some 1960s foundations would become the strongest in the system. But in the 1970s, the older universities consolidated, appointed more younger staff and made more effective use of their historical advantages."
Founded in 1990, Pompeu Fabra University (17th) heads a strong list from Spain. Rolf Tarrach, president of the University of Luxembourg, who chaired an international panel of experts that last year evaluated Spain's "University Strategy 2015", says: "Pompeu has been successful because it was a priority of the Catalan government to set up a top university by taking advantage of Catalans in the academic diaspora, such as (the economists) Andreu Mas-Colell and Jordi Gali, and by hiring good scholars from other Spanish institutions offering better conditions."
Taiwan is another country to have benefited from recent attention. Five of its institutions - all founded in the 1970s or 1980s - feature in the 100 Under 50, headed by National Sun Yat-Sen University in joint 30th place.
Angela Yung Chi Hou, dean of the Office of Research and Development at the Higher Education Evaluation and Accreditation Council of Taiwan, says that Taiwan's success can be attributed to a concerted government drive in the 2000s to enhance its universities after dramatic expansion in the 1990s, characterised by compulsory external quality assurance and focused, competitive investment.
All five of Taiwan's institutions in the 100 Under 50 have received grants under government excellence initiatives, she says, and they have all gained from "governmental competitive funding policy, sufficient funding from government and industry, and an efficient management team with a focused and strategic plan and a clear educational goal".
The US - which overwhelmingly dominates the traditional league table - has nine institutions in the 100 Under 50, led by two later additions to the University of California system - UC Irvine (fourth) and UC Santa Cruz (seventh) - both founded in 1965. As Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, points out: "The US was the first country to create a mass higher education system and the first to think seriously about a differentiated academic system - thus, its 'new' research universities are probably older than those in countries that created mature academic systems later."
Despite the success of Spain and Taiwan, for Marginson, the traditional elite from all over the world will continue to remain just that in terms of global status.
"Status in higher education is a zero-sum competition. Top-prestige institutions tend to hold their position over very long time spans - much more than in markets for, say, car manufacturing or computers - because their status is reproductive: prestige builds research capacity and elite student support, which builds prestige and research capacity, and so on.
"New elite institutions cannot break in through market competition alone. Frankly, that's an ideological fantasy that can only be advocated by someone who does not understand how status markets work. Breakthrough universities only ever do so if they receive special help. This does happen sometimes, but they can only take off on the basis of selective concentrated investments on a large scale, sustained for long enough. Good leadership helps, but they must have special resources."
But Matt Robb, senior principal at consulting firm The Parthenon Group, is adamant that the THE 100 Under 50 means that the established elite must tread carefully.
"There are some extremely prestigious European universities whose actual research impact is quite low," he says. "If you think that some of the oldest universities in the world are based in Italy, their impact on the rankings is marginal. Money matters more than age, potentially a lot more.
"It would be hard to imagine that Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale or MIT are going to struggle in the short term - something catastrophic would have to happen for that to take place. But continental universities offer a very clear warning to complacent Anglo-Western universities that if they don't continue to do top-quality work and don't continue to attract research money, then it will become very difficult for them."
He concludes with an important warning against complacency: "I'm sure Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne believed they had an in-built advantage over the hick upstart US institutions Harvard and Yale when they first emerged...
"Today, you would have to believe the Western universities had a permanent built-in structural edge not found [elsewhere] to believe that they can stop new universities from breaking through."
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