21 November 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
Advanced Search
View Printable Version
GLOBAL: Establishing world-class universities

Even in a global knowledge economy, where every nation, both industrial and developing, is seeking to increase its share of the economic pie, the hype surrounding world-class institutions far exceeds the need and capacity for many systems to benefit from such advanced education and research opportunities, at least in the short term. (The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities)

Most nations want one but few can seriously entertain the thought of establishing a world-class university, let alone sustain the resources and results needed to hold their position. That is the take-away message from Jamil Salmi, the World Bank's tertiary education coordinator, in this impressive monograph, The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities.

This scholarly contribution will surely signal a turning point in a sometimes divisive debate over an issue of enormous concern to governments, both industrial and developing. The conclusions might not be to everyone's liking but Salmi would have performed no favours by gilding the lily.

He states that many nations do not need comprehensive world-class universities until more fundamental needs are satisfied - such as the establishment of tertiary education systems which best serve the overall needs of that nation. In fact, the few nations that already have world-class universities also support world-class technical colleges, community colleges, distance education institutions and other variants. In other words, world-class systems support world-class universities.

The provision of a qualitative definition of a world-class university (Alden and Lin, 2004) in appendix F of Salmi's book, provides some hope for nations that could only ever aspire to the establishment of nation-building universities. This appears to be a more reasonable expectation for many given the evidence assembled by Salmi.

What he has written will serve as a handbook for nations and institutions to ponder the questions that need to be answered to guide the quest for establishing world-class universities. It provides a lucid and entertaining account of the success factors and pathways to greatness of world-leading universities and the reasons why others have stumbled along the way.

From his unique vantage point in the World Bank, Salmi is able to provide a global perspective on the experiences of a wide range of national university systems, including Brazil, India, Singapore, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, China and Kazakhstan - and not just the usual suspects, the large, developed nations.

The incredible depth of insight sets this monograph apart and makes it such an invaluable tool for governments, senior officials, university executives and others stakeholders who wish to better understand and respond to the forces of globalisation of higher education and the influence of world university rankings.

Global comparisons and world university rankings are indeed 'here to stay' but the vast majority of the analysis to date has concentrated on the results, which are hotly debated, and the methodologies which are inevitably found to be flawed.

Salmi skilfully uses these same rankings to steer the debate in a new and positive direction where nations and institutions are challenged to consider the most appropriate strategy within the context of their own national system and to take a pathway that plays to their strengths and available resources.

This book establishes that world-class universities are the product of a combination of three main factors: abundant resources, concentration of talent, and favourable governance. Many excellent universities, even in developed nations, that can only tick two of the three boxes fail to make the very top echelon of world universities.

The pathways to transformation are restricted to three basic strategies: upgrading existing institutions, mergers, and creation of new universities from scratch. Each strategy comes with its benefits and costs that are carefully explored and tabulated by Salmi.

Like any worthwhile instructive piece, the failures he catalogues provide as many clues as the successes. Competition for the best talent is a basic ingredient for success. The example comparing the progress over time of the National University of Singapore and the University of Malaya, which has faltered as a result of affirmative action policies favouring one cultural group, highlights the uncompromising attitude required to achieve world-class standing.

In another systemic failure, structural factors and governance constraints, including a lack of competition for top students and staff, are identified as major inhibitors preventing French institutions from rising to the top of the global league.

After much painful introspection, the French government is now experimenting with mergers of leading universities and Grandes Écoles, and allowing greater autonomy for institutions to employ the academic staff of choice at the right salaries. The lesson from this report is that the best universities in the world are not only well supported by their respective governments but are also given substantial independence.

Salmi finds that the world leaders are, without exception, international in their orientation (research, staff and students and outreach). The University of Sao Paulo, on the other hand, is inhibited in this regard with only 3% of graduate students from outside Brazil, a culture of endogamy when it comes to the hiring of academic staff and little by way of international collaboration.

Neither is internationalisation something to be rushed. Salmi establishes that 'sequencing' or timing are essential considerations in developing a culture of excellence to avoid growing pains encountered by some Chinese universities.

While he rightly asserts that "there is no universal recipe or magic formula for making a world-class university", one could contend that some nations well-endowed with resources, talent and good governance will nonetheless struggle to compete with the very best.

With the figures presented in several tables showing the strength of endowments and resources per student, one wonders whether any nations other than the largest and most highly developed have the capability to establish world-class universities. This creates problems for small developed nations such as New Zealand, Singapore, Norway and others that might not be able to replicate the preconditions needed to develop absolute world-leading universities.

Salmi's summary checklist for nations is a very good one as it asks the important questions, such as why even develop a world-class university and what are the alternatives? His most pertinent advice for most nations is in the conclusion when he states that national contexts vary widely and therefore each country must forge its own directions.

He warns that development of a world-class university cannot take place in isolation and that due attention needs to be given to the reforms at the lower levels of the education system. Nations will need to interpret this advice according to their position in the global higher education 'ecosystem'.

Development of world-class university systems in preference to world-class universities could be one direction that Salmi and others might like to take future analysis. Two major university systems rankings emerged in 2008 - the QS SAFE National System Strength Rankings and the Lisbon Council University Systems Ranking. In future we might look forward to a similar piece on the challenges of establishing world-class university systems.

If there is one possible criticism of this invaluable work, it might be in Salmi's final sentence that "the best in these rankings of research rankings will continue to be considered the very best in the world".

He appears to fall short on serious consideration of the notion of multiple definitions of world-class, including user-defined definitions now used by the Carnegie Classification and the German CHE rankings. This is slightly disappointing as it continues the focus of attention and policy analysis on the strategies of the leading research universities, obscuring the understanding of best practice and strategies being employed at all tiers within our respective university systems.

This presents an excellent opportunity for future research. Profiling of best practice across a range of institutions will surely create a more sophisticated understanding of the available approaches, nationally and institutionally. Then we can begin to address some interesting strategic dilemmas.

For example, what differentiated structures and organisational arrangements, missions, and supporting strategies are required at various points within our university systems? What expectations should be placed on institutions at various stages of development in their research performance, learning experiences and outcomes, community outreach, commercial activity and international policies?

What investment is required to produce 'step change' and lift universities from all tiers to the next stage of development? What are the optimal levels and mixes of expenditure (government and private), regulation and educational provision needed to ensure that each institution meets its unique mission?

Criticism aside, this impressive work brings us to a useful juncture in the debate on university rankings and aspirations to develop world-class universities. In what will surely be seen as a seminal contribution, Salmi has successfully introduced a more scholarly tone and in doing so has shifted the debate forward by a quantum leap

* Tony Sheil is Associate Director, Research Policy at Griffith University, Australia

* The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities is published by the World Bank. An essay on this topic by Jamil Salmi and published by Unesco is available here.


Thanks for the review of this article. An earlier publication by Salmi has been very useful in my own research into higher education and knowledge-based economies. See also Salmi, J. (2002). Constructing knowledge societies: new challenges for tertiary education. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

Heather Davis
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters

Email address *
First name *
Last name *
Post code / Zip code *
Country *
Organisation / institution *
Job title *
Please send me UWN’s Global Edition      Africa Edition     Both
I receive my email on my mobile phone
I have read the Terms & Conditions *