New THE ranking to select future Harvards and Cambridges

In a scathing attack on the annual cycle of university rankings Daniel Lincoln, a visiting scholar at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States, painted a wonderfully memorable image.

“Picture the year 1640,” he wrote in a blog post for a US higher education website. “You are an educated, upper-class Englishman, having a hearty laugh with your mates in London at the news that those religious fanatics in the colonies have now ‘founded their own university’ in Boston, led by the benefaction of a certain John Harvard – priceless!

“A few generations later, I’m guessing no one was laughing.”

He concluded: “Make no mistake: excellence is a longitudinal affair. By that standard, year-on-year rankings are inconsequential.”

While Lincoln’s point may have been very nicely illustrated, I believe his conclusion was wrong.

Of course, barring a managerial catastrophe universities are, as the cliché goes, like oil tankers – it takes a long time to turn them round. But we live in uncertain times, and the established global hierarchies are under constant threat from many angles. Things can change quickly.

Take the United Kingdom. Oxford historian Howard Hotson has described the reforms taking place to England’s universities as “the most radical experiment ever conducted on a major university system in the modern world”.

By replacing the vast bulk of public funding for university teaching with tripled student tuition fees and by ushering in market principles in a bid to drive up standards, the government has enacted “the virtual privatisation entire university system at the stroke of a pen”, he said.

Provisional funding allocations released in March 2012 revealed that, despite moves by the funding chiefs to smooth the transition, some English institutions will lose up to 46% of their direct grant in a single year. This is in no way “inconsequential” in terms of performance.

Similarly, when a university poaches a big name research superstar, usually with the entire team, in the ever-intensifying global academic transfer market, the effects on current and prospective students, on faculty and on potential investors, are immediate and are in no way “inconsequential”.

Moreover, in a highly competitive global market, the less tangible element of a university’s profile – its academic reputation – can be subject to rapid change. A good reputation matters – it has real-world benefits, from helping to attract and retain the best students and faculty to encouraging the most generous benefactors – but it can be vulnerable in a multi-media information age.

So Times Higher Education will continue, as it has done for the past eight years, its annual World University Rankings. THE is clear that rankings have a sound utility: to students, faculty, university leaders, governments and industry. If they did not, we would not publish them – and they would not attract the many millions of internet visits they do.

But to ensure we meet our obligations to our diverse global community of readers, THE is also committed to putting more rankings data into the public domain.

That is why as well as the Times World University Rankings, which uses 13 performance indicators across teaching, research, knowledge transfer and internationalisation, we also publish annually each March the World Reputation Rankings, which reveal the results of our Annual Academic Reputation Survey in isolation.

And that is why I am delighted to announce this week an innovation in the field of global university rankings – the Times Higher Education 100 Under 50.

The THE 100 Under 50 will, as its name suggests, rank the world’s top 100 universities under the age of 50. It will be published on 31 May 2012.

The vast majority of the world’s top research-led universities have at least one thing in common: they are old.

Building upon centuries of scholarly tradition, institutions such as Oxford, which can trace its origins back to 1096, can draw on endowment income generated over many years and have been able to cultivate rich networks of loyal and successful alumni (including, in Oxford’s case, a string of British prime ministers) to help build enduring brands.

Such advantages are reflected in the overwhelming dominance of older universities in the THE World University Rankings.

But the focus of the THE 100 Under 50 is not on the traditional elites.

The analysis is about a new breed of global universities – those that have already managed to join the world’s top table in a matter of years, not centuries, and others that show great promise – institutions that could reach the top, in time.

The 2012 THE 100 Under 50 will draw on the same comprehensive range of 13 performance indicators used to compile the THE World University Rankings, but will only rank those founded in 1962 or later.

The indicators, all developed and provided by Thomson Reuters, will be carefully recalibrated to reflect the profile of younger institutions.

The report will show us which nations are challenging the US and UK as the next higher education powerhouses. It will give us a unique insight into which institutions may be the future ‘Harvard’ or ‘Cambridge’.

Daniel Lincoln’s entertaining picture of the 17th century London establishment, mocking the pretentions of Harvard, demonstrates how established elites can be challenged by those who may at the time be dismissed as mere upstarts.

We have seen this time and again, notably with the 1960s ‘plate glass’ universities in the UK which now rub shoulders with (and often surpass) the Victorian civic universities. We are seeing it again with a number of institutions founded in the 1980s and 1990s, notably in Asia, with a focus on science and technology backed by abundant resources and serious political will.

And the pace is stepping up.

Even Lincoln, who argued that it takes “a few generations” to build world-class universities, acknowledged that “the processes of growth have accelerated enormously” since the time Harvard challenged the ancients.

Indeed, he noted that the book by Boston College’s Philip Altbach and Jamil Salmi, The Road to Academic Excellence: The making of world-class universities, “features some institutions that have made enormous advances in tiny amounts of time”.

The THE 100 Under 50 showcases such institutions – a new generation of globally competitive universities. It could offer a tantalising glimpse into the future and we look forward to it becoming a helpful addition to the annual round of rankings releases.

* Phil Baty is editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.