'World class' status for universities could take years to achieve, cost a large amount of money - and still fall short of the social and economic rewards commonly associated with top brand name institutions, according to a report launched at UNESCO's World Conference on Higher Education.
Spurred on by a proliferation of international league tables of top universities, many countries are intent of creating world class universities. However, many of them are "chasing a myth", says Challenge of Establishing World Class Universities, produced by the World Bank.
"There is no universal recipe or magic formula for making a world class university but nonetheless one cardinal rule seems to be that money alone will not buy you a coveted spot on the annual list of the world's elite institutions," said Jamil Salmi, author of the report.
"Many institutions believe that throwing money at the problem and having a beautiful campus will get them there," he told a media briefing in Paris on Monday. However "most countries could have at best just one or two world class institutions.
"Even in a global knowledge economy where all industrial and developing countries are competing for a bigger slice of the economic pie, the hype surrounding world class institutions far exceeds the educational needs and research potential of many of these same countries."
World class status is not achieved by self-declaration either, the report notes. Rather, elite status is conferred by the outside world on the basis of international recognition.
Most universities regarded as world class are in a very small number of countries, with almost all in the top 20 ranking produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University located in the US or Britain. "For developing countries with world class university aspirations, this is a stark reminder of the challenges they face achieving the goal," the report points out.
Most developing nations cannot hope to match the resources of the richest countries. But Salmi said it should not only be the richest countries who have world class institutions. He pointed to the example of the International Institute for Water and Environment Management in Burkina Faso, which is aspiring to be one of the best institutions in the world for training engineers in water and environment management.
Salmi said elite international universities had a high concentration of talented teachers and students, significant budgets, and strategic vision and leadership.
"In most cases world class universities have students and faculty 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," the report says. The universities of Cambridge in Britain and Harvard in the US have around 18% of their students and a third of their faculty from other countries.
International students and staff are also features of "newer world class universities" such as the National University of Singapore and Tsinghua University in China.
Universities that rely mainly on their own undergraduates to continue into postgraduate programmes or hire their own graduates to teach at the university "are not likely to be at the leading edge of intellectual development," says the report.
It is also difficult to select the best students in institutions with rapidly growing student enrolments and fairly open admission policies.
The huge size of leading Latin American Universities such as Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, with 190,400 students, and the University of Buenos Aires with almost 280,000 students "is certainly a major factor in explaining why these universities have failed to enter the top league despite having a few excellent departments and research centres that are undoubtedly world class."
Salmi argued that many countries would be better off if they focused initially on developing the best national universities possible, and suggested using top US universities or polytechnic universities in Germany and Canada as a model.
Another strategy is to upgrade a small number of existing universities with the potential to excel. This has been the case in China where two top universities - Tsinghua and Beijing - have been accorded special privileges, allowing them to pick the best students before other universities can make a choice.
Merging universities to create centres of excellence has been a policy in Denmark, France and the Russian Federation.
Other countries have set up completely new institutions, such as the Paris School of Economics. However, countries building and operating world class universities from scratch can end up spending significant sums.
In 2007 Saudi Arabia announced plans for a new US$3 billion graduate research university and Pakistan plans to spend US$750 million on each of its universities of engineering, science and technology to be build in the next few years.
But spending such sums in the hope of creating world class institutions might not be the best policy. "The real challenge is to create excellence from day one," said Salmi.
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