The Flagship University: A response to the World Class University paradigm

It is a familiar if not fully explained paradigm. A World Class University is supposed to have highly ranked research output, a culture of excellence, great facilities, a brand name that transcends national borders. But perhaps most importantly, it needs to sit in the upper echelons of one or more of the world rankings generated each year. That is ultimate proof for many government ministers and for much of the global higher education community.

Or is it?

The relatively recent phenomenon of international university rankings is fixated on a narrow band of data and prestige scores.

Citation indexes are biased toward the sciences and engineering, and biased in which peer reviewed journals are included - largely from the United States and Europe, and in the English language - and tilted towards a select group of brand name universities that always rank highly in surveys of prestige, the number of Nobel laureates and other markers of academic status.

It is not that these indicators are not useful and informative. But government ministries are placing too much faith in a paradigm that is not achievable or useful for the economic and socio-economic mobility needs of their countries.

They aim for some subset of universities to inch up the scale of this or that ranking by building accountability systems that influence the behaviour of university leaders, and ultimately faculty.

Some of this is good, creating incentives to reshape the internal culture of some national university systems that have weak internal quality and accountability policies and practices.

But it also induces gaming by university leaders and arguably is pushing institutional behaviour towards a vague model of global competitiveness that is not in the best interests of the nations they serve.

The Flagship University

I advocate the notion of the Flagship University as a more relevant ideal - a model for public institutions and perhaps some private institutions, one that could replace or perhaps supplement and alter the perceptions, behaviour and goals of ministries and universities in their drive for status and influence in society.

It is a model that does not ignore international standards of excellence focused largely on research productivity, but is grounded in national and regional service, and with a specific set of characteristics and responsibilities that, admittedly, do not lend themselves to ranking regimes.

Indeed, one goal here is to articulate a path and a language of a Flagship University that de-emphasises rankings and helps broaden the focus beyond research. Flagship universities are research-intensive institutions, or are in the process of becoming so, but have wider recognised goals.

After a long period of governments and their ministries attempting to shape the mission and activities of universities, including various accountability schemes and demands focused on the normative World Class University model, we need to enter a period in which institutions themselves gain greater autonomy and financial ability to create or sustain an internal culture of self-improvement and evidence-based management.

The great challenge for the network of universities that are truly leaders in national systems of higher education is to shape their missions and ultimately to meaningfully increase their role in the societies that gave them life and purpose.

The Flagship University profile I offer in a larger paper published by my centre at the University of California, Berkeley, includes an outline of the mission, culture and operational features and practices and is intended as a possible construct for this cause.

The objective is not to create a single template or a checklist, but a list of characteristics and practices that connect a selective group of universities to the socio-economic environment in which they must participate and shape - a model that others might expand on and indigenise.

Further, the Flagship University ideal is not, and could never be, a wholesale repudiation of rankings and global metrics, or the desire for a global presence. The model here is compatible with the World Class University focus almost exclusively on statistical analysis of research productivity, but aims much higher to - in some form - the soul and culture of the institution.

Key assumptions

There are a few key assumptions to allow the Flagship University to mature and exist:

Mission differentiation
National systems of higher education require some form of mission differentiation among their network of post-secondary institutions, including a limited number of research-intensive universities, some of which might be Flagship universities.

The Flagship ethos
Either by government identification or self-appointment, Flagship universities aspire to support regional and national socio-economic mobility and economic development, educating the societal and business leaders of the future and understanding and seeking a role in supporting other segments of a nation's education system.

They also have or seek a culture of self-improvement. The best universities are always looking to get better at what they do, and how they can positively influence society at large.

But to pursue this ethos they need the political, financial and policy support of their national governments, and in a manner that aligns with the overall management of a national higher education system and that meets the needs of various stakeholders - from students and their families to business interests and local and national governments.

While the Flagship model I advocate is largely focused on internal cultures and behaviours, government plays a critical role in a variety of ways, including:
  • • Using funding to steer the higher education sector to respond to labour market requirements and human welfare needs.
  • • Incentivising research and innovation in selected universities.
  • • Pursuing a close link between national and regional economic policy development and higher education planning.
A comprehensive array of academic programmes
Flagship universities have or aspire to offer degree programmes across disciplines, including professional fields such as engineering, law, medicine, education - including teacher education - and social welfare.

A sufficient 'academic core'
Universities that exude the values of the Flagship model can do so only if they have sufficient funding and a baseline of 'academic core' characteristics including manageable student-to-faculty ratios, a significant population of permanent faculty with doctoral degrees, sufficient numbers of masters and in particular doctoral students, and evidence of sufficient graduation rates and research productivity.

Research and analysis of a group of Sub-Saharan African universities by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, or CHET, based in Cape Town outlined the 'academic core' concept first in 2011.

CHET's baseline criteria focused on the developmental needs of African universities; but they provide a useful framework for all universities that are in the early stages of maturation, and are often in developing economies.

The 'academic core' includes input and output variables that link an institution's capacity to positively influence regional economic and social development with its capacity for knowledge production.

The important point is that there is a healthy balance in the various ratios of first degree and graduate students, permanent faculty, and a general assessment of productivity in graduates and research output. A key additional concept is the crucial importance of proper incentives and expectations for academic staff, along with the conditions in which they must work.

Institutionally driven quality assurance
While ministries of education can positively or negatively influence the quality of university academic programmes and activities, ultimately top tier institutions require sufficient independence to develop internal cultures of quality and excellence and incentives. This must include merit-based academic personnel policies.

If there is any one major theme that helps determine which are the most effective universities, it is the quality of the faculty, their ability to carry out duties, and high expectations regarding their talents, duties and performance that never ends and is driven by a process of peer and post-tenure review. The quality of students, and to a large degree their academic and other forms of engagement, follow.

An ancillary assumption: government policy regimes and induced efforts to improve the quality and performance of all or a select group of national universities reflect doubt about the ability of universities to become top, globally competitive institutions, and often with good reason.

But ministries should view such government requirements and often one-size-fits-all policies - such as national policies on academic advancement - as simply an initial stage in the goal of achieving high-performing Flagship universities, with the next and more important stage focused on sufficient autonomy to support a culture of campus-based institutional self-improvement.

Flagship universities are mindful of their global interaction and impact - including journal citations - and their regional responsibilities and influence in areas such as economic development and socio-economic mobility.

They are mindful of ranking systems that essentially encourage them to be what one might call 'universities of the cosmos' - for example, with research and quality goals that are not tied to location or more directly to societal needs - but they must remain grounded in a set of values and activities that make them essential to the societies they must operate in and serve.

More holistic model

Space does not allow for a full elaboration of the model, but the accompanying graphic outlines its four main components that relate to universities' external responsibilities, and their internal operations: Flagship institutions and national higher education systems; Flagship core mission - teaching and research; Flagship universities and public service-economic engagement; and Flagship universities - the building blocks for management and quality.

Generally, the sequence is from the larger external context, to the mission of the institutions and goals, to the management structure to make it happen.

Put another way, my effort here simply attempts to help create coherence, and to provide some guides and examples for what many universities are already doing or are thinking of doing, but with emphasis on internal culture and processes for evaluation and self-improvement.

Figure: A Flagship University Profile

Among the weaknesses of this Flagship University model is that it focuses on the culture, behaviours and internal accountability mechanisms of those institutions that seek the greatest possible positive impact for the societies they serve.

In this exploratory effort, I have not sought to generate some elaborate scheme to measure outcomes - what many ministries thirst for.

While some sort of framework for assessing the success of a Flagship can undoubtedly be created, like all existing outcome models it could only offer a partial understanding of the complex benefits and costs of what a highly productive university brings to the world.

Instead, my focus has been on the void in understanding what defines leading universities and what their aspirations should be.

Thus far, the World Class University rhetoric is the driving force, influencing government policy (not all bad) and institutional behaviours (not all bad) that have, in my view, an exceedingly limited vision - indeed a constraining force - on what major national universities should be and can achieve.

The Flagship University, and the exploratory profile I have offered, is a supplemental and certainly more holistic model applicable to some sub-group of major universities.

While governments and other stakeholders have a legitimate claim to influence and shape the operations and missions of their universities, the Flagship model may provide a path for some universities to explain and seek greater institutional identity, a stronger internal culture of self-improvement and, ultimately, a greater contribution to economic development and socio-economic mobility that all societies seek.

For that to happen, some group of institutions will need to embrace on their own terms some version of the model and articulate it clearly and loudly.

* John Aubrey Douglass is a senior research fellow in the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley. This University World News contribution is based on his larger study, "Profiling the Flagship University Model: An exploratory proposal for changing the paradigm from ranking to relevancy, published by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley. This paper is part of a cooperative CSHE and INCHER-Kassel research project, Research Universities Going Global.


Yes, it does seem like more and more 'top unis' neglect student needs and even education quality. Research is but one arm of a university's function.

Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page