Young University Rankings 2017: welcoming the reinvigorators

Newer universities are a diverse group, says Peter Coaldrake, but their fresh thinking can inspire institutions of all vintages

April 5, 2017
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The universities in the Times Higher Education Young University Rankings share a relatively recent establishment date, but beyond that they differ in many ways, as do the opportunities and challenges they face.

Young universities are often characterised as small and agile, although many have had four to five decades to develop and more than a third have the equivalent of 20,000 or more full-time students.

Some have been founded as a result of mergers between older, even ancient, universities while others began in effect from scratch, particularly in undertaking research.

Some have enjoyed ready access to significant government support; others have had to compete with more established players.

However, one connecting thread is that since they were established in the nation-building expansionary period of the 1960s and afterward, there were clear expectations (at least initially) that new public universities would focus more on the practical value of higher education and research, and this often included a focus on science, engineering and technology as well as on professions such as teacher education, business and various health specialties.

Many universities were established in new localities or to serve previously underrepresented groups of people, and so such universities had expectations that they would serve and transform local as well as national economic needs.

Younger universities have been quick to accept the changes that have swept through higher education over the past few decades, particularly the push for selectivity and a focus on the public and private benefits of universities. Such a focus integrates the needs of students and external agencies with academic cultures and structures, and inherently works across academic disciplines and specialties.

This has been easier for new universities than for those shaped by tradition and structures that have been largely intended to serve academic disciplines and authority.

Although many new universities are autonomous, selectivity has always been part of their mandate, and this has only been reinforced in contemporary environments of fierce competition for research funding and student interest.

Younger universities have needed to find niches to build strength in scholarship and research. For research in particular, simple replication of the profiles of others who have far stronger reputations is a doomed strategy.

While reputation (especially research reputation) remains a dominant factor in university success, and past performance is still a powerful determinant of reputation, the success of many younger universities in building global reputations for high-quality education and research shows us that change is possible.

Yet we should acknowledge that the traditional picture of hidebound, inflexible older universities is increasingly inaccurate. To reverse Ronald Reagan’s famous debating line, we would not want to make political capital out of their age and attachment to the past.

The full story of new and established universities is not just one of unequal competition or of one group taking sole ownership of new approaches. The truth is that new and older universities benefit from each other’s strengths, and older universities are also transforming to meet a more demanding and competitive world, in many cases following the lead of newer institutions.

Many of the newer universities in Australia and the UK were the result of a recognition that the institutional separation of practice and theory was unsustainable, and that all universities should operate in ways that were demonstrably oriented towards serving the public rather than the academic.

In Australia, there remain stark differences in research income among the universities, but hierarchies of esteem are becoming flatter as new universities grow through competition and collaboration. There is ready movement of staff between new and old universities at all levels, from vice-chancellor to lecturer, academic and professional, and new cultures and approaches to university life emerge throughout the sector as younger and older universities grapple with similar issues.

Any nation that wishes to thrive in a complex and rapidly changing world must nurture a strong university system, but universities cannot take public support or ongoing student demand for granted.

They have to avoid complacency and reinforcement of the status quo, and reinvent themselves to show that they can deliver better value for the investments that people make, and that they have a close focus on meeting the needs of students and society.

Younger universities are reinvigorating higher education and research and are helping to lead the way in this essential process of adaptation. 

Peter Coaldrake is vice-chancellor of Queensland University of Technology

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