From Limerick to Maastricht, Dallas to Madrid, the Arctic to Geelong, Dundee to Tsukuba, there has been the higher education equivalent of dancing in the streets (soy lattes all round for the management team?) as youngish universities discover they have done very well indeed in the latest THE rankings listing the top 150 of institutions aged under 50.

Local newspapers in towns and cities around the world trumpeted the success of their universities, whose PR departments had maxed up to warp overdrive to put the best spin on their achievements.

Here in Australia University of Technology Sydney again topped the list of local universities in the ranking, coming in at 21. Sixteen universities were named in the top 100, with eight in the top 50.

But as Campus Morning Mail’s Stephen Matchett asked – does any of it matter? Answering his own question, he put it this way: “Being founded 50 years ago or less is hardly a defining quality, unless of course your university made it on the list, and then it matters a great deal.”

He’s right. Even though this is just yet another ranking in what has become a veritable forest of rankings, why shouldn’t universities trumpet their success? Higher education is becoming increasingly competitive and every little edge helps in standing out from the pack.

As Matchett pointed out, lurking in the list is an ominous warning for Australia …

“… four of the global top ten are in Asia; Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) is second, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is third, Pohang University of Science and Technology (Korea) is fifth and the Korea Institute of Science and Technology is sixth”.

In other words, Australian universities these days are not just vying with each other, they are competing in an international arena.

The same holds true for universities everywhere, no matter their age. Institutions (and entire sectors) in countries such as India, China, Russia, Germany, Spain and South Korea are polishing up their acts and declaring they are open for business.

And if being a young university is perhaps no big deal, being old is becoming less of one.

As THE’s Phil Batty put it, such ancient institutions have had time to develop deep networks of loyal and successful alumni; are part of the fabric of great cities; and have had time to accumulate property and wealth, all contributing to the development of grand reputations but … “many of the universities in the 150 Under 50 ranking now see their relative youth as an opportunity”.

He noted the words of Brian MacCraith, president of Ireland’s Dublin City University:

Young universities are unhampered by tradition and outdated modes of operation. They tend to be agile, dynamic and keen to adopt modern organisational practices.”

However, there is another threat looming for older, steeped-in-tradition universities that could have significant consequences in years to come.

Writing in the US context, but nevertheless applicable elsewhere, Jeffrey J Selingo says it is “just plain wrong” that high achievement later in life is tied to a student’s alma mater:

The evidence is overwhelming that success after college depends more on how you approach your undergraduate years than where you go.”

Business and industry are now looking more at the job candidate as a total person, rather than as someone who has been to an elite institution, with some employers increasingly using “people analytics” in hiring to determine the pedigree of their best employees …

“… and to their surprise they are finding they don’t always come from elite schools. As a result, many are revamping their recruitment practices and hiring from a wider swath of colleges and universities”.

So, another day and another ranking – not important in itself – go by. But it does contain a warning: no university, public or private, old or young, anywhere in the world, can afford to rest on its laurels.

Competition is heating up. And it’s going to get hotter.

-DM