Influence of age on university “performance”

by Ben Sowter


The world is changing. And fast.

Higher education is no exception. In Saudi Arabia there are 28 universities, 22 of which were founded after the turn of the millenia. Economies worldwide are turning to the ever enticing notion of creating a “knowledge economy”. I read somewhere that we have generated more written content since 2003 than the in the whole of human history until that point.

In that environment – whilst rankings such as ours may treat all institutions equally – the reality is that date of establishment clearly has a part to play in the current success profile of universities. In broad terms, universities over 100 years old, and perhaps those over 50, have already reached their “terminal velocity” – the combination of reputation, government funding, scale of operation, organisational culture, international mix and alumni profile have reached a degree of equilibrium which makes radical shifts in performance – as measured by rankings or otherwise – exceedingly difficult to impose.

Younger institutions are in a different position – they probably have to campaign harder for every government dollar; deliver a richer pitch for every international faculty member or highly regarded researcher; they may still be found moving into entirely new parts of the academic spectrum (for example, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has recently announced the opening a new medical school in partnership with Imperial College); their brand is less of a household name and as a result they are often more progressive on the international scene.

At last week’s Australian Technology Network Symposium in Adelaide it seemed to come down to whether or not there is a way to measure the trajectory of a university yet to reach its “terminal velocity”. We have begun some work on developing an adjustment algorithm for our rankings tables which can potentially help identify universities that are ahead of where we might expect them to be for their given age – we would certainly expect NTU and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), also celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, to perform well along with many of the ATN member institutions but are there indicators that we ought to be looking at that specifically relate to the trajectory rather than the destination.

Comments welcome.

4 replies
  1. Ben Sowter
    Ben Sowter says:

    Of course one challenge is ascertaining a solid definition of the age of the institution. NTU can trace its roots back to 1955, perhaps even further, but in 1981 it was closed and reopened as Nanyang Technological Institute with a complete faculty purge. In 1991, the reinvigorated institution was awarded university status and the leadership now use that point of reference to determine the age of today’s university. A pre-exisitng institution achieving university status may have some natural advantages over an new university having its foundation stone laid in the same year though.


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