New 'World Class' Universities: Cutting Through the Hype

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

October 20, 2011

In today's global economy, where money and ideas change hands at a dizzying speed, and generating sophisticated innovation and knowledge are the new sources of growth and wealth, it can be tempting for many countries to try to tap into that wealth by establishing elite research universities from scratch. After all, top-tier universities are outpacing the smartest companies in the world with their original research.

A recent global study of patents shows, for example, that universities and research institutions are now driving more scientific strides in biotechnology than are private companies. Add to this the fact that the new world-class universities, whether in Chile, Hong Kong, India, South Korea, and the United States, also serve as hubs for new thinking in the humanities and social sciences.

For these reasons and more, it would be tempting for poor and middle-income countries to think that a top-flight research institution is all that stands in their way of reducing poverty, leaping forward in their national development, and establishing profitable new footholds in the global economy.

But this decision cannot be simply tactical. It must be a long-term strategic decision that aspiring countries take, weighing all the facts, while banishing any notion of fast results. A new World Bank study, "The Road to Academic Excellence: the Making of World Class Universities," charts the experience of 11 leading public and private research universities in nine countries from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. It concludes that top performers in this rarified world share common characteristics, without which 21st-century universities cannot hope to survive, let alone excel.

Three factors distinguish elite international universities from their competitors, namely: a high concentration of talented academics and students; significant budgets; and strategic vision and leadership.

In most cases, world-class universities have students and faculty members who are not exclusively from the country where the university operates. This enables them to attract the most talented people, no matter where they come from, and open themselves to new ideas and approaches. Unquestionably, the world's best universities enroll and employ large numbers of foreign students and professors in their search for the most talented. In this respect, the fact that world-class universities succeed in mobilizing a broadly diverse national and international academic staff is likely to maximize the ability of these institutions to create and disseminate knowledge far and wide.

Another conclusion from the study is that building and operating world-class universities can cost millions of dollars. For example, the authors show that in late 2007, Saudi Arabia announced plans for a new, $10-billion, graduate research university; Pakistan plans to spend $750-million for each of the new universities of engineering, science, and technology that it will build over the next few years; and the medical school established by Cornell University in Qatar in 2002 cost $750-million.

World-class universities have four main sources of financing: government budgets for operational expenditures and research, contract research from public organizations and private companies, the financial returns generated by endowments and gifts, and tuition.

The availability, then, of abundant money and international prestige creates a virtuous circle that allows elite universities to attract even more top professors and researchers, as is often the case among the leading colleges.

Recent years of global economic crisis, however, have had a significant effect on research universities, with the overall result potentially being a benefit to East Asia's universities. East Asian countries have weathered the economic storm in better shape than their Western counterparts, and they seek to join the top ranks of the global research elite. For example, India has increased its higher-education investment by 31 percent since 2010, and China has continued to finance its programs in support of the nation's leading universities.

Lastly, while unlimited money and attracting the world's best and brightest students and teachers certainly helps strengthen a country's bid to create world-class universities, there are two more vital ingredients to consider, without which a coveted national aspiration to own a global brand in higher education falls apart—strategic vision and leadership.

From case studies across many regions, it is clear that world-class universities thrive in an environment that fosters competitiveness; unrestrained scientific inquiry; and academic freedom, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity. Moreover, institutions that have complete autonomy are also more flexible because they are not bound by cumbersome bureaucracies and externally imposed standards, even in light of the legitimate accountability mechanisms that bind them. As a result, they can manage their resources with agility, and quickly respond to the demands of a rapidly changing global market.

But even this level of autonomy is not enough to establish a world-class university, without other vital strategic leadership features. To make the grade, you also need inspiring and persistent leaders, a strong strategic vision of where the institution is going, a philosophy of success and excellence, and a culture of constant reflection, organizational learning, and change. On top of that, you can't be in a hurry either.

So is this just a way of telling low and middle-income countries to lower their sights, let others aim high, and accept the existing monopoly in world-class universities?

No. But the reality of the matter is that not every nation needs comprehensive world-class universities, at least not while more fundamental higher-education needs are not being met. Many countries would be better off if they focused initially on developing the best national universities possible.

Higher-level institutions in sub-Saharan Africa, equipped to provide quality education and conduct relevant applied research, can play a key role in training skilled workers to be fluent in the latest technologies and apply them in industries to make a broader range of products that win ready customers worldwide. Good-quality higher education is also key to stimulating innovation, producing new varieties of crops and sources of energy that can speed progress toward reducing poverty, achieving food security, fighting disease in all its dreaded forms, and improving health.

Such institutions can emphasize the diverse learning and training needs of the domestic economy and student population. By concentrating efforts on the local community and economy, these institutions can lead to more effective and sustainable development than broader world-class aspirations.

The challenge then for national governments is not to chase the dream of building world-class universities for the sake of global prestige and the rich research proceeds that they bring. We urge them to see through the hype and focus on what really matters instead.

In this time of renewed uncertainty in global markets, when long-established foreign aid donors are strapped for cash, and emerging markets look to solidify their rising growth rates, we must aim relentlessly at relentlessly on the quality of higher education and research, which continue to beckon as the ultimate pathway to people's empowerment and the lasting development of nations worldwide.

Jamil Salmi, is the World Bank's higher-education coordinator; Philip G. Altbach is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.


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