Young universities on the rise

By Danny Byrne

Young institutions are having an ever bigger impact on the QS World University Rankings.

One might reasonably expect universities to abide by the laws of the space-time continuum by getting older each year. Yet the average age of the top 100 in the 2011 QS World University Rankings® is seven years younger than in 2010. There was a turnover of just five universities passing in and out of the top 100 this year, itself a measure of the stability derived from using a consistent methodology over a number of years.

University of Mississippi, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Universität Freiburg, University of Oslo and Lomonosov Moscow State University dropped out of the top 100 this year. All are comprehensive universities, and have a reasonably stately average age of 229 years.

Their replacements in this year’s top 100 were Tohuko University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Fudan University, The University of Adelaide and POSTECH. Their average age is under 100 years old, with the youngest addition, POSTECH, founded as recently as 1986. Just two of the new members of the top 100, Georgia Tech and The University of Adelaide, can trace their roots to before the 20th century – by 26 and 15 years respectively.

The elite cadre of US and UK universities that dominate the top ten are united by the many decades – if not centuries – of tradition and investment underpinning their reputations. From the medieval colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, the ornate libraries of Harvard and Yale, to UCL with its neoclassical columns and embalmed philosopher, these are historic seats of learning. The top ten have between them been active for a combined total of nearly 3,500 years.

The economist Richard Levin has spoken of the ambition of Asian universities to catch up with this old boys’ club of pre-eminent universities, and emphasises the difficulty of doing so without years of continuous investment. “World-class universities achieve their status by assembling scholars and scientists who are global leaders in their field. This takes time. It took centuries for Harvard and Yale to achieve parity with Oxford and Cambridge, and more than half a century for Stanford and the University of Chicago (both founded 1892) to achieve world-class reputations.”

While this statement is borne out by the prominence of the universities that Levin mentions in the QS World University Rankings®, some of the most rapid progress in recent years has been made by universities that we might expect to be at a much earlier stage in their development. This is particularly noticeable in Asia. A major part of government strategic planning in the past decades has been the need to innovate, particularly in the high-impact disciplines of science, engineering and technology (STEM).

Nanyang Technological University breaks the world top 60 for the first time, just 20 years after it was first established. Also established in 1991, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (40) is similarly precocious, and is comfortably the youngest university in the top 50. In Korea, KAIST (90) and POSTECH (98) both make the top 100, with POSTECH gaining 14 places. Both universities were established in the last 40 years.

These young universities are raising millions in funds to fuel the growth and help build state-of-the-art laboratories and facilities. NTU spent S$830 million in sustainability research, HKUST’s budget for research in 2009-2010 was HK$ 426 million, and KAIST has set a goal to raise 1 trillion won by 2013 for various academic advancement programs.

Continued investment from public and private sectors will be crucial to further development, but the evidence from this year’s rankings is that the future is bright for Asia’s upwardly mobile institutions.