Younger universities - those less than 50 years old, which are proliferating in emerging economies in Asia, Africa and the Middle East - may become leading research institutions of the future. However, these potential 'stars' are not being reflected in international university rankings tables.
"Universities less than 50 years old fall below the radar of current world university rankings systems," Caroline McMillen, Deputy Vice-chancellor (research and innovation) of the University of South Australia (UniSA), told a rankings workshop in advance of the QS Asia-Pacific Professional Leaders in Education (APPLE) conference in Singapore last week.
"Younger institutions are under-represented in world rankings," McMillen said. "Current rankings do not provide information which allows the early identification of universities which are building research activity and intensity."
Rankings tables produced by organisations such as QS, Shanghai Jiaotong University and Times Higher Education are dominated by older universities in Europe and the US, mainly those over 100 years old, with a mean age of 180 years.
"I am not saying these rankings are not a true indication of research excellence, they are not inappropriate, but many governments use these rankings as if they apply to all universities. However it is not particularly useful for those universities that are going to become the next generation of research-intensive universities and this is an issue across the Asia-Pacific and Africa," McMillen said.
This is far from special pleading by younger universities in countries like Australia - UniSA is just under 20 years old - for a rankings system that makes them look better. Countries with young universities may put an undue and misplaced emphasis on the global ranking of their institutions, she explained.
"There are governments who look at the rankings and they say we are not going to invest in universities that don't do well. So it is important to get underneath the skin of the total score," McMillen told University World News.
"I don't see African and new South-East Asian universities having the investment capacity to have universities that will come up the world rankings as they [the rankings] exist at the moment. They [governments] risk putting sometimes millions into individual universities or research areas rather than developing their institutions as a whole."
Australia underwent huge expansion in the late 1980s to early 1990s in order to increase participation and access to higher education. That expansion has been mirrored during the late 1990s to early 2000s in East Asia and South East Asia and has been a trend in the current decade in some countries of South Asia and the Middle East.
However there are fewer than 40 universities that are under 50 years old in the Shanghai Jiaotong ranking's top 300, while only 50 universities are in the QS top 300, with the higher echelons dominated by august and ancient seats of learning.
Yet many of the newer universities perform better in the number of citations of research than 'middle-aged' universities.
Research volume is often a good indication of an up-and-coming research institution, McMillen said. "The next stage will be quality and being in a good position to perform above their age. This takes time and governments must back their upwardly-mobile institutions."
"By the age of 60 you should be able to see if you are on track to be a world-class institution," McMillen said, referring to 60-year-old institutions such as Warwick and Sussex in the UK, which are high up in the rankings despite being relatively young.
One of the reasons many younger institutions are forging ahead compared to many 'middle-aged' universities is that they are investing in building research capacity and also putting a lot of money into multidisciplinary research and newer areas of research.
Many representatives from Asian universities at the QS meeting said they did not want to become like 150-year-old institutions just to rise in rankings, but wanted to continue to take on more contemporary research projects while still aspiring to be world-class.
"This opens up the issues of what are the predictive indicators for young institutions that will become the next generation of international research institutions," McMilen said.
McMillen suggested indicators that reduced the weighting given to academic peer review, widely seen as a reputational measure. These take up quite a high proportion in the QS and Shanghai Jiaotong's rankings - up to 40% of the entire rankings measure.
She proposed increasing the weighting given to research volume, currently around 20% of the rankings measure, to take into account the strong research publication performance of younger universities. And she suggested a ranking order of up-and-coming young universities.
"There is an opportunity to consider what defines the trajectory form 'research active' to 'research intensive' and to develop a ranking system to identify the top 300 'next generation research intensive' universities," McMillen said.
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