Wave of confidence

January 1, 1990
Big fish swimming among schoal
Source: Alamy

The young universities celebrated in the 100 Under 50 are bullish: they have no fear of the future or of older rivals, says Phil Baty.

When Times Higher Education conceived the 100 Under 50 in 2011, there was a sense that the ranking was one for the underdog.

The average age of the top 100 representatives in the traditional THE World University Rankings is close to 200 years old. Asia’s top institution, the University of Tokyo, was founded in 1877, while Europe’s number one, the University of Oxford, can trace its origins back to 1096.

It is clear that older institutions enjoy significant advantages in the global rankings: they have had much more time to accumulate property and wealth; they are often part of the fabric of major cities and trusted custodians of national treasures; they have had centuries to develop deep and enduring alumni networks; and they enjoy rich traditions of scholarship (with reputations to match).

The first 100 Under 50, published in 2012, shone a light on a new breed of universities – those that have managed to attain global pre-eminence in decades rather than centuries, and those showing great promise as potential stars of the future. But it was hard to escape the feeling that the young minnows needed their own pool to avoid being swallowed by the more mature sharks.

However, in this year’s 100 Under 50 (and the associated inaugural Times Higher Education Young Universities Summit), a palpable sense of confidence and optimism is apparent among the (relative) newcomers.

The leaders of the new generation of institutions featured here are remarkably bullish: happy to compete on equal terms with the old guard and confident of their ability to thrive in a dynamic and diverse higher education sector.

Some even see their relative youth not as a hindrance but as a clear strategic advantage in an uncertain global academy that demands bravery, risk-taking and fresh thinking.

Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of the 50-year-old University of Essex, one of the UK’s “plate-glass” universities, believes it is liberating that his institution is “unhampered by the burden of tradition and history”. Way Kuo, president of the City University of Hong Kong, says that while his 30-year-old institution lacks the “heritage and pedigree” of some, there is a positive flip side: it is “unencumbered by outdated modes of operation”.

Wendy Purcell, vice-chancellor of Plymouth University, which gained its university title as recently as 1992, sums up the mood pithily with a statement that will resonate with many young institutions: “You don’t need to be old: you just need to be bold.”

This publication – the third THE 100 Under 50 – is a celebration of this dynamism, optimism and boldness.

Phil Baty is the Times Higher Education rankings editor.

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