Building 'world-class' universities can have a negative impact on the rest of a country's higher education system if equity and other issues are not taken into account, a senior Asian Development Bank official warned Asian university leaders meeting in Manila.
Norman LaRocque, the ADB's senior education specialist, told the QS-Asia-Pacific Professional Leaders in Education (QS-APPLE) conference this week that with the significant costs involved in developing world-class institutions that can attract and retain top students and academics, there may not be as much money for second- and third-tier institutions within a country.
"It is a trade-off that governments need to look at and consider: is this a zero sum game?"
"If the benefits you get from upgrading institutions to world class level will have an effect on the others that are greater than the benefits of upgrading, then you have to consider how you hold everything constant so that the rest don't go downhill," LaRocque told University World News.
Significant amounts are being spent on upgrading universities by countries such as China, which wants to create as many as 50 world-class institutions. South Korea has similar ambitions with its BrainKorea21, Taiwan has an Excellence Initiative, Japan has the Global 30 Scheme, and Vietnam has introduced a New Model Universities strategy.
Similar initiatives are taking place in France, Germany, Spain and Russia.
Apart from being costly, the process of identifying and selecting world-class universities can politicise higher education and pitch public institutions against private, and religious institutions against secular, LaRocque said. It can also unleash 'politics of envy'.
"Can you withstand protests from the 'unloved' institutions?" he asked.
Governments will have to assess whether patent rates and peer review rates are going up as a result of investing in world-class institutions - although he cautioned that it could take some time for this to show - "otherwise you could end up spending a lot of money and not get very much for it.
"You need to minimise mistakes, especially in an economy where funds are scarce."
Larocque admitted that it was difficult to calculate the return on such funding, including the wider social benefits. "It goes well beyond the issue of world-class university development."
Governments also need to decide whether they create world-class institutions by upgrading existing institutions, merging them or creating new ones from scratch.
He pointed out that a lot of public sector research and development may be done by government research institutions not connected to higher education. "Some countries can grow quickly without having world-class institutions."
Establishing world-class institutions also has implications for equity in higher education within countries. "You have to be careful if you put more money into these elite institutions. You have to make the effort to work with high schools to get an equitable intake of students - you may need more money for scholarships."
The World Bank and ADB have both funded the upgrading of institutions, notably in countries like Vietnam and Laos.
This, said Larocque, has been to "help a country shift gears when they move from lower levels of economic development to more industrialised and innovative economies - these institutions will help provide knowledge and innovation that help a country step up."
* The QS APPLE conference was held from 16-18 November in the Philippines.
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I think that putting up world-class universities would have a positive impact in a country's higher education system. It will encourage administrators to find ways of improving their capability to provide better service in instruction, research and extension. They may even go to production just to augment whatever resources are generated from the first three services. The name of the game at present is "competition". Otherwise, one cannot stand the heat of competition and may just be pushed to extinction.
Leodegardo M. Pruna
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