GLOBAL: Aspiring to world-class universities achievable

The prestige seeking behaviour of universities is ever increasing as the global war for talent intensifies and education's role in the knowledge economy becomes more critical. In this process, the quest for world-class status among universities has become more prominent.

For example, the Prime Minister of India has announced establishment of 14 world-class universities in the XIth five-year plan 2007-2012. Likewise in 2007,Pakistan announced its ambitious US$4.3 billion project to create nine world-class engineering universities in collaboration with European universities, with 50% of its academics and administrators coming from Europe.

The big question is how achievable these aspirations are? Are countries and universities beng unrealistic in benchmarking what a world-class university is and what resources are required to achieve it?

The notion of world-class universities can be broken down into three stages: self-declared, aspirational, and externally validated. The issue of self-declaration of world-class status is most serious as it results in failure of vision and also duping of the stakeholders' expectations.

Recently, the World Bank released a report by Jamil Salmi, The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities. It points out that, "Becoming a member of the exclusive group of world-class universities is not achieved by self-declaration; rather, elite status is conferred by the outside world on the basis of international recognition."

Self-declaration of world-class status often results because of two primary reasons: lack of knowledge and understanding of what world-class standards really mean and how to achieve them ,and exaggeration of the relatively mediocre standards of the institution.

Universities are in a haste to declare themselves as world-class because of competitive pressures to gain attention from stakeholders and attain prestige. Gaining external validity is not easy as it takes significant investment of time and resources to achieve world-class standards.

"The lack of an absolute set of performance criteria and measures may mean that world class will always be positional, referring to those universities that are at the top in terms of academic reputation rather than those that fit a class of standards." Levin, Jeong and Ou reported in 2006. Thus, self-declaration works as an easy way out for institutions.

The definition of what makes a world-class university is subjective and contextual. Given the diversity of global education systems and different societal needs and priorities, it is extremely difficult to define common standards.

For example, Indira Gandhi National Open University in India is the world's largest university with an enrolment of more than two million students. The university serves a very different mission of providing access to disadvantaged segments of society through distance education and may not have the resources and even the need to adhere to "world-class" standards.

Its noble mission and low-cost operations appropriately serves its mission. It has created its own standards which has implications for developing countries. Global fascination for rankings and its parameters discounts the local contexts and the institutional missions.

"There is no universal recipe or magic formula for 'making' a world-class university. National contexts and institutional models vary widely. Therefore, each country must choose, from among the various possible pathways, a strategy that plays to its strengths and resources," Salmi writes.

But despite the subjectivity involved in defining world-class standards, there is a need for it so that institutions may appropriately benchmark themselves with the best in the world and strive to work towards quality improvement.

It will also help in better planning and execution of the institutional mission.

Salmi provides an interesting framework for building world-class universities by leveraging three complementary sets of factors:

(a) a high concentration of talent (faculty and students)

(b) abundant resources to offer a rich learning environment and to conduct advanced research

(c) favourable governance features that encourage strategic vision, innovation, and flexibility and that enable institutions to make decisions and to manage resources without being encumbered by bureaucracy

Likewise, Philip Altbach suggested a combination of conditions and resources for creating world-class universities:

1. Sustained financial support, with an appropriate mix of accountability and autonomy

2. The development of a clearly differentiated academic system--including private institutions--in which academic institutions have different missions, resources, and purposes

3. Managerial reforms and the introduction of effective administration

4. Truly meritocratic hiring and promotion policies for the academic profession, and similarly rigorous and honest recruitment, selection, and instruction of students

Educational excellence is a gradual and resource-intensive process and excellence in the local context is a must before setting aspirations for global standards. This results in a realistic assessment of the institutional capability to serve societal needs. Furthermore, resources are better allocated to meet the needs of the vision.

Institutions also need to recognise that achieving world-class standards requires a strong commitment to global best practices adapted to the local context. There is nothing wrong with the aspiration of achieving world-class status but the challenge is the mismatch between resource availability and societal needs, which results from the lack of understanding of what it takes to build a world-class university.

Some new projects are aiming higher and establishing appropriate standards, processes and resources to achieve excellence. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia is one such ambitious project.

Continuous quality improvement and innovation is a must for higher education and to that end we need more success stories where universities are able to aspire and achieve world-class standards.

Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO a tDrEducation and He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at and @DrEducationBlog.