Forever young? University age in the Times Higher Education Young Universities ranking

Queries whether the THE Young ranking is taking the definition of "young" a little too far

Getting closer to that dreaded marker of “old age”, I love the adage: “60 is the new 50”. But could we push this rejuvenation process even further? It seems for universities we can, at least in the Times Higher Education Young Universities ranking.

As a university you can be nearly 900 years of age, but still be listed as a “young” university, i.e., be 50 years old or under. If you merge – or form an alliance – with another institution, you are “reborn”. The date of your collaboration becomes your new foundation date.

If you merge with not just one, but a handful institutions, you might even debut in the top-10. Should you merge again just before you turn 50, you’ll have discovered the elixir of eternal youth. Or at least an eternal ranking in the THE Young Universities ranking :-).

Young or old?

Surely, I am joking? No, I am not. The top-200 of the 2022 THE Young ranking includes 22 universities that have been “established” since 2010. Of these 22 institutions, only the Chinese Southern University of Science and Technology is a truly "new" university in the sense that it was created from scratch.

Two Finnish universities (Tampere University and Aalto University) were created through mergers of older institutions, as were the Taiwanese National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, and SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College). Egypt’s Aswan University changed from being a branch of South Valley University to being a freestanding university.

The biggest group of new entrants in the top-200 are sixteen French universities. They were newly formed through mergers, alliances, or ComUE associations of two or more - and in some cases more than a dozen - institutions. Twelve of these sixteen are ranked in the top-100, five in the top-20, and two in the top-10. One of them - Paris Sciences et Lettres University, a 2010 merger of eleven institutions and another eight associated colleages - even tops the 2022 ranking.

This recent slate of mergers and alliances was driven by the French government’s policy which incentivised consolidation in the Higher Education sector to improve the country’s international research reputation. The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was reported by Nature to be obsessed with the poor showing of his country's universities in international rankings.

Is 872 the new 50?

Virtually all constituent universities of the new "young" French institutions were established more than a century ago. Many first saw the light of day in the 17th or 18th century, with some even dating back to the 12th and 13th century.

The oldest is Sorbonne, the metonymical name of Université de Paris; it dates back to 1150. Don’t confound this institution with Sorbonne University (2018) or Université de Paris (2019). Getting a bit confused? Don’t worry: Université de Paris (2019) might be stripped of its name again after another university brought a court case against them.

I have no problem at all with these merged universities ranking (highly) in the regular THE World ranking. After all, many of the French institutions that have merged in the last decade were once part of bigger universities.

However, what puzzles me is why a research university with roots dating back hundreds of years, in one case nearly a millennium, should be counted as a "young" university. Wouldn’t it make more sense to take the average age of the merging institutions?

The joint venture option

We know from the Business & Management literature that many companies prefer joint ventures over mergers. Although this is not as common for universities, joint ventures do exist. As a result, even though the parent institutions do not rank in the THE Young, their "offspring" does.

In fact, the UK’s highest ranked institution - I think the name university is a bit of a misnomer - is a collaboration between Brighton University, Sussex University and various surrounding NHS organizations. It is called Brighton and Sussex Medical School. It runs just one degree and has fewer than 1,000 students, featuring the one-but-lowest student/staff ratio in the UK (second only the almost equally small and specialised Scotland’s Rural College).

The Brighton and Sussex Medical School was established in 2002, but only entered the THE Young Universities list in 2018, when it first met the hurdle requirement of 1,000 publications over a 5-year period. It debuted at #47 and has held on to the top spot in the UK ever since. More than 90% of its 1750-odd publications are in just two subject areas (Medicine, 72%; Biochemistry, Genetics & Molecular Biology, 21%).

Nearly half of its citations are linked to a single author, a Wellcome Trust Fellow and affiliate of Brighton and Sussex Medical School. In turn, 90% of his citations are linked to a series of some twenty world-wide Global Burden of Disease studies between 2016 and 2019 - with 500-1,000 authors each - providing this joint venture with a perfect citation score (100.0). Let’s see what happens when these highly cited articles start dropping out of the publication window.

It is never too late? Erasmus in the limelight

A final surprise entry in the 2022 THE ranking was Erasmus University, a university which recently celebrated its 108th anniversary. It made a spectacular debut at #4. And it didn’t even merge. Well at least it didn’t do so recently, it merged in 1973. So why was it only listed now?

Did THE want to give Erasmus a belated spot in the limelight, just before they are thrown out of the ranking again in 2024? Or was it simply a data entry error with someone misreading their 1913 foundation year as 1973. I guess we’ll never know.

You are only as old as you feel!

A shame it doesn’t quite work like that for people. Getting together with a group of old academics doesn’t suddenly make you (feel) younger, however much you might like to reminisce about the “good old days”. If anything, it makes you feel older.

I guess humans will need to rely on the joint venture option, aka kids. And of course, you can always decide to live by the other adage “you are as old as you feel”.


The astute reader will obviously spot a slippery slope here. There are some 40 UK and Australian universities in the top-200 that have long histories, despite only being given university status in the early 1990s. Middlesex University, my current employer, is one of these new universities. It can trace its history back to teachers, arts and technical colleges established in the late19th or early 20th century. But the crucial point is that they were not universities until 1992. Before achieving university status, they did not have the ability to award their own degrees and research was not part of their core mission.

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