The 100 Under 50 universities are agile, dynamic and free from the burden of history, writes Phil Baty.
An illustrious past can confer great contemporary advantages on traditional universities and signal a great future: such august institutions have had many centuries to accumulate wealth and property; they are often the custodians of national treasures and sit at the social and cultural heart of great cities; they have had time to build deep networks of loyal alumni ambassadors, sustained over the generations; and they enjoy rich traditions of teaching and scholarship – with enduring reputations to match.
So it is little wonder that the institutions that top the Times Higher Education World University Rankings tend to be at least a century or two old, with the University of Oxford (founded 1096) and the University of Cambridge (1209) always near the top of the list.
But many ancient seats of learning have crumbled into dust, and it is clear that a long history can hamper progress. Old infrastructure can be ill-equipped to house the latest technology and expensive to maintain. Older institutions may be obliged to sustain wide and potentially cumbersome portfolios of teaching and research; they often have a diverse and powerful range of stakeholders to keep happy; and they can be burdened by deeply embedded governance and management traditions that can stifle innovation.
So while the new kids on the academic block may lack the advantages bestowed by history and have yet to reach the upper echelons of the traditional world university rankings, perhaps it is their youth that offers them their greatest opportunity.
As Brian MacCraith, president of Dublin City University (established as recently as 1989 and the host of the 2015 Times Higher Education Young Universities Summit), writes in this year's analysis of the 100 Under 50 Rankings: “Young universities are unhampered by tradition and outdated modes of operation. They tend to be agile, dynamic and keen to adopt modern organisational practices.”
Such institutions can be more responsive to societal and economic developments, he believes, keeping their research and teaching portfolios fresh, relevant and highly focused. They can afford to take more risks and engage more with industrial and civic society.
As MacCraith points out, they are also able to attract the most dynamic, driven and disruptive leadership: “Such institutions attract leaders who wish to make a difference rather than simply maintain the status quo.” Indeed, young universities’ “entrepreneurial culture infuses all their activities, an energy and excitement that spreads to students and staff”.
It is this energy and infectious excitement that the annual THE 100 Under 50, now in its fourth edition, seeks to reflect and celebrate.
Editor, Times Higher Education Rankings