Young University Rankings 2023: results announced

Australia is top-performing nation for first time in five years, while the United Arab Emirates is on the rise

July 3, 2023
Sydney Opera House, Australia illustrating NSW plan to allow return of international students
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View the THE Young University Rankings 2023 results

Australia’s young universities have outperformed Germany’s for the first time in five years to become the world’s highest-scoring budding institutions on average.

With an average overall score of 53.0, Australia comes up on top when considering countries that have had four or more institutions continuously ranked in the Times Higher Education Young University Rankings since 2019. The rankings, which include universities that are not older than 50 years, sees Germany drop to second place this year with an average score of 52.5. The United Arab Emirates climbs up to the third spot with 51.2, overtaking Italy and France.

Regional experts cite the rise of internationalisation, demographic challenges and the diversification of curricula as the main factors behind these shifts.

Although Australia has only one institution in the top 10 – the University of Technology Sydney in ninth – the country’s average overall score has grown by 13 per cent in five years. It achieves its highest score in the international outlook pillar (83, on average), followed by citations (76).

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John Byron, principal policy adviser at Queensland University of Technology, says that a “collaborative spirit” among young and old universities in the country has bolstered their performance. Young universities are often working in research collaboration with bigger universities in the Group of Eight (Australia’s highest tier of research-intensive universities), he says. This has given these young institutions a “leg up” in the citation scores.

“Even though they are competitors for students, they are collaborators for research,” Byron says of the different groups of universities in the country.

Luke Sheehy, executive director of the Australian Technology Network, an alliance of six young universities, says that in recent years newer universities have seen a rise in the number of international students, who are particularly drawn to their courses in business and commerce.

He adds that 59 per cent of international students at Curtin University are taught offshore, as are half of those at RMIT University, in part due to their shared time zone with places such as China and Hong Kong. Sheehy imagines that the growth in Australia’s young universities will take the form of “offshore growth” through a rise in transnational campuses.

Earlier this year, two young Australian universities – Deakin University and the University of Wollongong – announced plans to set up campuses in India.

The next important step, according to Sheehy, will be to figure out how qualifications can be recognised across borders and what Australian universities can do to “unlock” that mobility for their offshore students.

Domestically, growth has been limited. THE data show that over the past five years only one new Australian university has joined the Young University Rankings, bringing the country’s total to 23 institutions, up from 22 in 2019.

The nation’s universities are “creatures of states and territories” and the “barriers to entry are high”, explains QUT’s Byron.

THE Young University Rankings 2023: the top 10

Young rank 2023 Institution Country/region Overall score
1 Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Singapore 79.1
2 The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Hong Kong 75.8
3 Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris France 75.5
4 Hong Kong Polytechnic University Hong Kong 71.9
5 Erasmus University Rotterdam Netherlands 71.6
6 City University of Hong Kong Hong Kong 70.8
7 University of Antwerp Belgium 67.6
8 Institut Polytechnique de Paris France 67.5
9 University of Technology Sydney Australia 66.4
10 Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) South Korea 65.5

This trend is in contrast to developments in countries such as India, Turkey and Iran, all of which have seen the number of ranked universities at least double in a span of five years. With 47, Turkey has the highest number of young universities ranked among all countries in this year’s table.

Australia’s high-performing young universities are, in one sense, newly turned universities. “Technical universities are actually the oldest higher education institutes in the country, if you’re willing to trace their provenance back to mechanics institutes and arts schools,” explains Byron.

The top-ranking young university in Australia, the University of Technology Sydney, “claims the oldest ancestor” in the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, which was founded in 1833, he adds. It was then nearly two decades before Australia’s oldest official university – the University of Sydney – came into being.

In a way similar to the 1992 reforms in UK higher education, a wave of smaller institutes in Australia clubbed together to become universities in 1989.

Byron says that being given university status was like an “injection of fresh new DNA” for these institutions. Therefore, in some respects, the success of the under-50 universities is “an accident of policy history”, he says.

The United Arab Emirates has experienced an even greater rate of improvement. The average overall score for its young universities has jumped by 36 per cent in five years, from 38.3 in 2019 to 51.2 in the latest table.

The government’s vision for 2071 is based on four pillars, one of which is called “excellent education”; in the plan, the country promises to invest in “advanced technology-based education”.

Hugh Martin, registrar and chief administrative officer at the British University in Dubai, says that the ambitious target-setting is “laudable and certainly focuses attention, but it’s the actual steps being taken in the sector now that make a real difference on the ground”.

For example, the Ministry of Education’s Commission for Academic Accreditation has recently started widening curricula in higher education, which will “help diversify the sector from a heavily American education system bias”.

Student numbers also “remain bullish despite Covid-19”, he adds.

Martin says that the next step is for the country to have “more ‘full shop-front’ universities” offering a wide range of academic disciplines. He predicts that there could be a contraction in the number of higher education institutions in the country to a “more realistic complement”.

“At the moment the sector is almost entirely STEM-based,” he says. “This is not healthy in the short term, but moreover it poses real societal and cultural questions, as well as for the longer-term sustainability and attractiveness of education in the UAE.”

Meanwhile, young universities in Germany, which have been high performers previously, have seen numbers dwindle and ranks decline.

In 2019, there were 11 German institutions in the Young University Rankings, but this cohort has shrunk to seven this year – mostly due to institutions being excluded after reaching the age of 50. Four institutions have also fallen down the ranking since last year. Scores for citation impact and industry income have taken a particular hit, lowering the country’s average overall score by 5 per cent since 2019. Research and teaching scores continue to keep pace, but not enough to pull up the overall scores. When compared with fast-rising young universities in Asia, Germany’s universities appear to be getting less competitive.

Kai Mühleck, an education researcher at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies, says that a “crucial difference” between Germany and Asian or African nations is its stage of economic development and, by extension, the maturity of its education system.

“Higher education systems in these countries [in Asia and Africa] may be still developing relatively fast in line with economic development, while the German higher education system and economy is already developed in a broad sense,” he says.

Mühleck also points to government data indicating demographic challenges. The number of first-year university students in Germany significantly increased between 2006 and 2011, and then stabilised. However, since the winter semester of 2019-20, fewer students have been entering universities.

In April, another German-based research group, the Centre for Higher Education, analysed the low intake of student numbers and concluded that the “strong phase of growth is over”.

Looking ahead, young universities in Germany might need to adapt to cope with this fall in student numbers, while Australian ones will perhaps find ways to translate their education onto international campuses. And the world is likely to continue to watch the UAE, as its higher education sector matures to take its own shape and form, with young universities at the helm.

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