Rise of the world-class university

For the fifth time, at the invitation of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, 160 experts from almost 40 countries met in Shanghai earlier this month to talk about the ‘world-class university’, a phenomenon that was hardly recognisable 10 years ago but which has become one of the most popular topics in higher education debates around the globe.

The Fifth International Conference on World-Class Universities, WCU-5, took place from 3-6 November under the general theme of “Global Outreach of World-Class Universities: How it is affecting higher education”.

A decade ago, Professor Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, wrote in an article titled The cost and benefits of world-class universities: “Every country wants a world-class university. No country feels it can do without one. The problem is that no one knows what a world-class university is, and no one has figured out how to get one. Everyone, however, refers to the concept.”

Since then not much has changed in this respect, and the debate goes on.

As Professor Nian Cai Liu, director of the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University noted, no one agrees on one definition of a world-class university.

“I don’t think there will be one 10 years from now as well," Liu said. “World-class research, lots of autonomy, best scholars, best faculties, best students – all are part of the concept of a world-class university. But this is too general; every country, every interested university must find its own way to define what is real excellence.”

Liu is one of the pioneers of thinking in practical terms about world-class excellence. In 2003, he published the first global ranking of universities – the famous Academic Ranking of World Universities which has caused so much commotion, and not only in the academic world.

Consequences of global rankings

Speakers at the Shanghai conference pointed to the far-reaching financial and political consequences of the global rankings and debate about world-class universities.

Politicians realised that higher education had become another important field of international competition and, concerned about the image and perception of their countries, rushed in with initiatives and funding to prop up the position of their universities.

“In China, first what we had was a world-class university initiative. The 985 project had been launched in 1998 and was about allocating large amounts of funding to certain universities to make them perform better in global comparisons,” Liu said.

“The ranking came after that but those two initiatives were very closely connected. I wanted to find out the position of my university and other Chinese universities in the world – and to define what the real world-class university is.”

During the last decade, the world-class university landscape has changed dramatically. Many more universities have a specific ambition to become world-class. As Dr Jamil Salmi, global tertiary education expert and author of The Challenge of Establishing World-class Universities, said, the issue is much more on the map and in more countries.

Excellence initiatives

“We can see the acceleration of excellence initiatives around the world,” Salmi said. “They are not always called directly ‘excellence initiatives’; there are also some exciting projects to create new, world-class universities from scratch.”

Nazarbrayev University in Kazakhstan, the Moscow School of Management and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia could serve as examples of such initiatives.

How many excellence initiatives are there? Salmi estimated that in the past seven years there had been 33 such initiatives throughout the world. The best known are the Chinese projects 985 and 211, the ‘Exzellenzinitiative’ in Germany, the French Excellence Initiative and Brain Korea 21.

So at least 30 countries are making deliberate efforts to move towards creating world-class universities, especially in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Less activity is occurring in Africa and Latin America.

“The idea of a world-class university which is really pushed by the global economy and in a small way by rankings and by conferences like this, and by the work of some researchers like Jamil Salmi, has moved very quickly in the last few years,” said Altbach.

“There is much more understanding of and acceptance of the need for top, world-class research universities. From the beginning it was all about the development of a research university to function in a global knowledge economy.”

Altbach thought the next players interested in launching a world-class university initiative should be Brazil or India. These two big systems with developing knowledge economies had the capacity and enough resources to do it: “From what I read and hear, I am not expecting them to. But they should,” he said.

Dr Jan Sadlak, President of the IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, said world-class universities had become the reference and magnets for a variety of crucial domains of higher education at the national and international level. These included a concentration of research funding, institutional repositioning, as well as promotion of academic collaboration and a search for talent.

New geo-politics of higher education

From the wider perspective, the emergence of the concept of a ‘world-class university’ is related to the forward march of ‘globalisation’. In direct and indirect ways, higher education policies of promoting the world-class university idea have become a contributing factor for the emergence of the “new geo-politics” of higher education.

The themes of the WCU conference concerning the global outreach of world-class universities substantiate such an interpretation. According to Liu: “There are more and more scholars from developed and developing countries interested in the idea of a world-class university. Also more universities are interested in becoming world-class. The policy-makers are increasingly willing to talk about the world-class university.”

Michel Rocard, Prime Minister of France in 1988-1991, delivered an address titled A New Push in French Excellence: Could France again be capable of world-class research? Rocard presented an excellent example of how political ambition backed by public funding could lead to the establishment of a top university. In November next year, the Paris-Saclay University will be launched, with “18% of French forces in hard sciences working there”.

A different but also top-down initiative to reshape the country’s higher education system in Russia was presented by Isak Frumin, head of the Institute of Education, and Alexander Povalko, Deputy Minister of Education and Science.

Akiyoshi Yonezawa of Nagoya University pointed out that increased competition among top Asian universities was applying substantial pressure on economies that developed earlier, such as those of Japan and Taiwan.

With all the focus on the world-class university, one important point was made: many nations do not need comprehensive world-class universities until more fundamental needs are satisfied, such as the establishment of a tertiary education system that best serves the overall needs of that nation.

In fact, nations that already have world-class universities also support world-class technical colleges, community colleges, distance education institutions and so on. “In other words, to have excellence initiatives is not enough; you need to change the whole education ecosystem,” contended Jamil Salmi.

WCU-5 conference

The WCU-5 conference also included a special session for the 10th anniversary of the Shanghai global university ranking. At a closing award ceremony in recognition for his contribution to international academic rankings and the quality of higher education in general, Professor Nian Cai Liu, director of the Center for World-Class Universities and dean of the graduate school of education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, was made an Honorary Member of the IREG Observatory.

WCU conferences have been organised by the centre at Jiao Tong bi-annually since 2005. Conference proceedings will be published in 2014 and the next conference will be held in 2015.

The WCU-5 conference was preceded by the first global meeting of higher education research centres in Shanghai, The International Higher Education Research and Policy Roundtable, and was followed by a seminar on 21 universities’ national system rankings.