How to create a world-class university

Is there really a recipe for creating a world-class university?

University World News carries a piece on what looks like a fascinating new publication from the World Bank on the making of world class universities. The report looks at a number of case studies, particularly from East Asia, and draws out several common characteristics of the most successful institutions.

The report is available from the World Bank here and the abstract sets out the approach:

How do you build a world-class research university from scratch? In today’s ever-faster, global economy, many countries are reflecting on the merits of building elite global universities to make their mark in world research. Recognizing that such universities are emerging as the central institutions of the 21st Century’s knowledge economies, a new book ‘The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities’ examines the recent experience of 11 universities in 9 countries on 4 continents that have grappled with the challenges of building successful research institutions under difficult circumstances, and synthesizes the lessons learned. This book will be essential reading for governments, tertiary education leaders, employers, and citizens, considering reforms and innovations to improve their country’s position in the global scene.

The University World News article highlights the successes of the universities in Asia and their characteristics:

Top-performing research universities share three common characteristics – a high concentration of talented academics and students, significant budgets and strategic vision and leadership, according to the authors.

“Global talent search seems to be one of the most powerful accelerating factors” towards world-class status for research universities whether they are in a poor or rich country, and whether they are small or big, said Salmi. “It is all about talent.”

According to Salmi, what distinguishes successful East Asian universities from the rest of the world is an emphasis on international staff and students.

“Both Shanghai Jiaotong University [China] and Pohang University of Science and technology [South Korea] made a strategic decision to rely principally on Chinese or Korean academics trained in the best universities in North America or Europe and, to a large extent, to recruit highly qualified foreign faculty,” he noted in the study.

But he acknowledged that new research universities face special challenges in attracting top academics and good students.

One of the most successful examples in the study, Hong Kong University of Science and technology, “pushed this logic to the extreme,” according to Salmi

“The rapid development and rise of the new university can be attributed in large part to its systematic policy of giving priority to outstanding Chinese from the diaspora for staffing the initial contingent of academics.”

This enabled the institution to become a node for disseminating global knowledge within the country and region and to contribute to global knowledge, an important characteristic of world-class institutions.

It’s perhaps not terribly surprising that you need top talent, plenty of money and some good leadership for a university to succeed. More interesting is that there seem to be only a modest number of institutions which have rapidly achieved world class status in the way described here. Maybe it’s harder to collect the ingredients and follow the recipe than it appears.

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World Education: The New Powerhouse – Going Global 2011 §1

Some comments on Going Global 2011 – World Education: The New Powerhouse?

I was fortunate to be present at the British Council’s Going Global Conference in Hong Kong earlier in March. There were about 1,000 delegates there and as might be expected for this kind of event many of the presentations were high level and whilst some were pretty strategic others felt rather abstract.

There was a distinct UK flavour to some of the discussions and the particular current domestic issues relating to the new English fees regime and Tier 4 student immigration did intrude in a number of sessions. Despite this there was a lot which was of interest including some really good perspectives from other nations.

The opening session on “world education, the new powerhouse” (does this really mean anything?) had a number of set piece presentations from Ministers and then contributions from Hong Kong to Brazil to Africa:

Donald Tsang Yam-Kuen, Chief Executive of Hong Kong spoke about the idea of HK as a regional higher education hub. However, you get the real impression that they won’t be just another regional hub, but rather that they have the foundations, the location, the money, strong institutions and the real vision to do make this happen. Two other points of note here: first, education is the Hong Kong government’s single biggest spending priority and accounts for 25% of annual expenditure (25%!); second, Harrow School (yes that Harrow) is intending to open a branch campus in HK.

Professor Tony Chan, President of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Convener of the Hong Kong Heads of Universities Committee, spoke about the changing patterns of international HE and reinforced the commitment to the idea of a regional hub. Hong Kong universities are offering a real international education not the more traditional Eastern model. And, lest anyone doubt the intent here, he noted that HKUST was aiming for 20% international students, increasing international study opportunities for its own undergraduates and more collaboration with universities in mainland China. HKUST is still a young institution but is an impressive one and hugely ambitious: “We are in aggressive recruitment mode for international staff and students”.

Three other international perspectives of note here. Professor Olugbemiro Jegede, Secretary-General and Chief Executive, Association of African Universities, Ghana spoke about the challenges for Africa. It was a very long list and the challenges exist across the board. Collaboration and a continent-wide academic framework including mobility and mutual recognition is the way forward. He also noted the importance of using ICT to help the growth of HE in Africa. Ultimately this was an optimistic prospectus but the massive scale of challenges here remains rather daunting.

Dr Javaid Laghari, Chair of the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan, reported that Pakistan still has a long way to go to achieve its ambitions for having two universities in the world top 100. Pakistan was seeking to grow PhD numbers significantly, including through split PhDs with foreign universities. And all of this was happening in the context of being in the ‘frontline of the war on terror’. Again we were given an optimistic outlook but these are really challenging circumstances in which to be growing and strengthening HE.

Dr Carlos Alexandre Netto. President of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, gave a sense of the huge scale of HE in his country. With over 2,000 institutions but only a 15% age participation rate there is ongoing major growth in public university enrolments. Most HE students are at private universities though and growth in student numbers is actually being funded through loans for private university study. A major quality assurance operation now been through its first cycle. Overall, left with the impression of a system of extraordinary scale.

Between them Professor Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Exeter and President, Universities UK, and David Willetts, UK Minister for Universities and Science, sought to paint a positive picture of UKHE. The THE report on the event notes the following:

Claims that the UK government is cutting funding for higher education are “not factually accurate” and gloomy media coverage is damaging the sector’s reputation overseas, according to the president of Universities UK.
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, told an audience of international higher education leaders at the Going Global conference in Hong Kong last week that the reality of the government’s funding changes in England was “rather different to the headlines”.
He also countered suggestions that fees for overseas students would triple and described the UK as still being “welcoming” to international students despite visa restrictions.
Professor Smith’s message on funding echoed that from David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who told the conference: “We expect universities to get the same amount of cash, if not more than they have received up to now.”

Both were therefore arguing there would be more money in the system, international fees would not be tripled (although the contrast with David Cameron’s assertion in China last year that international fees would actually be reduced to bring them in line with domestic fees was noted by the anoraks) and international students would continue to be extremely welcome in the UK (although this is somewhat at odds with the Government’s proposed Tier 4 visa changes). Willetts said he was embarrassed by small number of UK students going abroad and says Government was trying to help with this (but it was far from clear how this help would be offered). Steve Smith meanwhile added that the revised visa proposals which would be published soon would be good news for universities and international students. We’ll see.

World education may or may not be the new powerhouse but the challenges in some parts of the globe remain huge and in other areas the difficulties are self-imposed. Overall though there seems to be a strong degree of consensus that the future of HE is global.