Spring in their step

April 29, 2015

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New universities’ flexibility, chutzpah and willingness to innovate offer many advantages over older competitors, argues Brian MacCraith.

“Youth is nimble, Age is lame;
Youth is hot and bold, Age is weak and cold;
Youth is wild and Age is tame”
William Shakespeare (attributed)

There are many challenges facing university leaders today. These include the increasing cost of higher education; technology’s manifold effects on learning; globalisation; the pressure to prepare graduates for a rapidly changing, knowledge-based society; and greater student mobility. Of course, many of these issues overlap, but perhaps the overriding challenge is maintaining quality in a globally competitive market while simultaneously achieving budgetary sustainability. Such challenges exist to varying degrees for all universities, public and private, but they are all the more acute for young ones.

The number of higher education institutions worldwide is growing rapidly. In 2012, the International Handbook of Universities, published by the International Association of Universities (an official partner of Unesco), listed more than 15,000 of them; the 2014 edition identified more than 18,000 in 180 countries. Young universities have to address the same challenges as their older counterparts but without many of the advantages, such as generous endowments, established alumni networks and international brands developed (in many cases) over the centuries. Moreover, global rankings provide further benefits for veteran universities by placing substantial emphasis on “reputation”, where youth is clearly at a disadvantage (after all, it takes time to accrue esteem).

But youth confers many advantages, too. Young universities are unhampered by tradition and outdated modes of operation. They tend to be agile, dynamic and keen to adopt modern organisational practices. This makes them more responsive to societal and economic developments nationally and globally, ensuring the relevance of their teaching and research to students, scholars and partners. Moreover, such institutions attract leaders who wish to make a difference rather than simply maintain the status quo.

Successful young universities share many characteristics – unsurprising, given their degree of alignment with global needs. They tend to be innovative and more willing to engage with enterprise and civic society. This entrepreneurial culture infuses all their activities with an energy and excitement that spreads to students and staff. Typically, young universities are not comprehensive in terms of their disciplinary offerings, but this enables them to focus on and prioritise their niche strengths.

Dublin City University, established in 1989, is one of the Republic of Ireland’s young universities. We are pleased to have made the Times Higher Education 100 Under 50 every year since it was first published in 2012. Our current strategy is encapsulated in one distinctive vision: to be a research-intensive, globally engaged “University of Enterprise” distinguished by the quality and impact of its graduates and its focus on translating knowledge into societal and economic benefit.

The “University of Enterprise” branding refers not only to the innovative mindsets we seek to foster in our students, but also to our deep engagement with various forms of enterprise – social, cultural, commercial and so on. Through strong commitment to the excellence of our students’ learning experience, we aim to produce graduates who can flourish in a dynamic, challenging 21st-century world.

Of course, youth in itself is not a recipe for success in the global academy. Although it confers certain advantages, these must be leveraged in a strategic fashion. Successful young universities are brave; they take risks; they try out new ideas regularly; and they embed a culture of innovation across their communities. They make a positive impact by translating the knowledge that they create through research into benefits for all.

The THE 100 Under 50 has played an important role in shining a light on this new breed of universities and encouraging their behaviour. I am reminded of the old Irish proverb: “Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí” – “Praise youth and it will prosper”.

Brian MacCraith
President, Dublin City University

 

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