“Old” vs. “New” Universities: Which is Better?

“Old” and “new” universities are often euphemisms for “good” and “bad,” respectively. Students matriculated at, and faculty employed in, new universities are often looked down upon as less worthy than those studying or working in older, more established institutions. It is no coincidence that the “best” universities in the world are also the oldest ones. In the United States, think the “Ivy League” (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, and Cornell). In the United Kingdom, think “Oxbridge” and the Russell Group. In Australia, think the Go8 (Melbourne, ANU, Sydney, Queensland, Western Australia, Adelaide, Monash, and UNSW). But does older necessarily mean better?

I bring useful insight into this question. As an early career researcher, I was always associated with an older institution: first Cambridge (ancient), then Manchester (Russell Group), St Andrews (also ancient), and University of Western Australia (Go8). Now, as a Professor, I find myself working in one of Australia’s new institutions, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University), which was granted university status in 1992 (though its history as a Working Men’s College dates back to 1887).

The first observation I would like to make is that older universities are prestigious simply because they’re old. I find that decidedly unimpressive. They gained their prestige through pure luck, whereas new universities have to fight hard to get a seat at the table. It’s a similar story with millionaires. Some millionaires today are millionaires simply because their fathers were millionaires, whose fathers before them were also millionaires, etc. Why should we respect their inheritance? Other millionaires today “made it” on the back of blood, sweat, and tears. They struggled to achieve their wealth. Which of these do you find more admirable?

“Older universities are prestigious simply because they’re old. I find that decidedly unimpressive. They gained their prestige through pure luck, whereas new universities have to fight hard to get a seat at the table.”

The second observation is related to the first. Given the financial and historical disadvantages that new universities face, the productivity of individual faculty members is even more impressive than the productivity of researchers employed at old universities. Grant money flows naturally to older universities, regardless of how deserving they are. At new universities, researchers have to make a more convincing case to win grants and get published.

Thirdly, the metrics that are commonly used to evaluate research are biased toward old universities. Obviously, your average “old school” professor is going to publish in higher impact factor journals than your average “new school” professor. And perhaps not surprisingly, your average “old school” professor is going to have a higher h-index than your average “new school” professor. However, these metrics (the impact factor of journals and h-indices of researchers) are meaningless, except in the eyes of university administrators. So what if the “old school” professor writes more papers? Few will read them, anyway.

On the metrics that matter—for example, research impact—new universities punch way above their weight. My own institution is a case in point. RMIT is ranked third best in the world against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in the Global Research Impact Rankings. We engage in research that actually matters to people and has the potential to improve their lives.

The final point I wish to make, though admittedly anecdotal, is that working in a new university is more rewarding than in an old university. At my previous institution, University of Western Australia, I used to dread going into work and had less than no confidence in my leaders. At my present institution, I feel an exhilarating sense of “upward trajectory” and I have faith in management to lead us boldly into the future. I am happy, and proud, to work in a new university.

Professor Andrew R. Timming
Editor-in-Chief
http://dire-ed.com

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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