The power of youth? Age of ranked universities is declining

The average age of universities in the THE World University Rankings has dropped by 30 years since 2016

February 15, 2022
University of East Anglia
Source: iStock

View the THE Young University Rankings 2022 results

When it comes to the age of universities, it seems youth may not be wasted on the young. Analysis of Times Higher Education World University Rankings (WUR) data shows that the average age of the top universities has dropped.

Comparing the latest WUR results with data from 2016 reveals that the average age of ranked universities has fallen by 30 years: it is now 109 years, compared with 139 six years ago.

In 2016, the top 400 universities had a mean average age of 166 years old, but in 2022 the figure is 154.

The youngest university featured in the rankings in 2016 was Montpellier University, which was founded in its current form in 2015. The oldest was the University of Bologna, founded in 1088, followed by the University of Oxford in 1096 and the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in 1175.

The youngest in 2022 were the University of Paris-Saclay and L’Institut Agro, both founded in 2020.

When using the median, to take account of the few extremely old institutions in the UK and Italy, the average age for the top 400 in 2016 was 127 years old, which drops by 10 years to 117 in 2022.

Dig deeper into the data, however, and a split is revealed. The average age of the top 200 universities has, in fact, not dropped; it is the universities in the 201 to 400 category that have got younger. 

The mean average age of the top 200 was 193 in 2016 and 198 in 2022, reflecting less movement at the top of the rankings (169 universities feature in the top 200 in both 2016 and 2022).

The average age of universities ranked 201st to 400th has dropped from 139 in 2016 to 111 in 2022; those ranked 401st to 600th dropped from 143 in 2016 to 136 in 2022.

The representation of countries in the 201 to 600 bracket has changed in the past six years.

The US, Canada, and Australia all have fewer institutions in these positions in 2022 than they did in 2016. While the US still has the most institutions ranked, it now has 64 in this bracket compared with 74 six years ago. The UK saw a big jump in this category, with 40 now compared with 28 previously. China also increased its number, jumping from 19 to 24.

Jamil Salmi, a higher education specialist and former coordinator of the World Bank’s tertiary education programme, said that “several countries in Asia and the Middle East have made deliberate efforts, sometimes with lots of investment, to create new universities or build up their new universities. This explains, in my view, their rapid rise in the rankings.”

Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at THE, said: “It is clear from the data that the world’s leading research universities do tend to be old. Age does bestow a lot of advantages, like a reputation built on centuries of tradition, a large, multigenerational alumni network, and often years of accumulated wealth.

“But it is exciting to see that the average age of the so-called world-class universities in the World University Rankings is dropping, as the rankings become more inclusive, and the representation from emerging economies, often with younger institutions, increases.”

Mr Baty added that this may signal “the beginning of a trend”.

“With rankings becoming more inclusive and diverse, and with plenty of disruption hitting the sector through the pandemic, are the comfortable old guard under more pressure from a new generation of agile and dynamic institutions?” he asked.

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