Lessons to learn from world-class universities

A Swedish report on university leadership and the extensive collection of information on how 16 world-class universities are governed, has found evidence for internationalisation being one critical component of these universities’ progress towards scientific excellence.

The crucial factor is international recruitment. As the rector of one of the case universities studied, Professor Bertil Andersson of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said at a conference in Stockholm last week: “The most important factor at universities is people; the second most important factor is people and the third most important factor is people.”

The report was published by the commission on higher education leadership, chaired by Kåre Bremer, former rector of Stockholm University.

It benchmarks 16 world-class universities in 10 countries. These are: Cambridge, Bristol and Edinburgh in the United Kingdom; Maryland, Stanford, Oregon and Georgia Institute of Technology in the USA; Aarhus and Copenhagen in Denmark; Helsinki and Aalto in Finland; TU Delft in the Netherlands; Vienna in Austria; EPFL-Lausanne in Switzerland;, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, or KAIST, and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

It draws on two reports by the Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis, or Tillväxtanalys, which has worked in parallel with the commission on leadership:
  • Governance and Organisation of Universities: An international view with eight case studies written by Rolf Höijer, Carl Jeding, Mats Engström, Andreas Muanyi-Scheutz, Niklas Kriselius, Martin Wikström and Yoonjin Cho, and published last year; and
  • Management and Governance of the Universities of Copenhagen and Aalto: Two case studies by Enrico Deiaco and and Martin Wikström, and published last month.
The latter examines how these two universities responded to the extensive university reforms imposed by the governments of Denmark and Finland.

The extensive analysis and information provided in the two reports has been summarised in the report of the leadership commission, but the case studies represent a huge stock of information on the running of some of the world’s top-class universities that deserves a wider readership.

The case studies

The following five selected case study universities have all experienced structural reforms and managed to carve out a new role in the international research and education landscape. They have used different instruments but all are focusing on international recruitment:
  • • The University of Copenhagen, Denmark, has in particular worked on attracting top students at bachelor level through their International Graduate Talent Program.
  • • Georgia Institute of Technology or Georgia Tech, Atlanta, United States, has built satellites on several continents;
  • • Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, or EPFL, Switzerland, has recruited more than half of its professors and three-quarters of its students from abroad;
  • • Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology or KAIST, South Korea, is pursuing its ambition of becoming a 'world-class’ university by means of a massive national investment;
  • • Nanyang Technological University or NTU, Singapore, re-tenured 750 professors in 2007-09, dropping 250 of them, and sought “top international stars and young upcoming post-docs” to fill their shoes.
The University of Copenhagen is seeking to recruit more students with different nationalities beyond Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Icelandic. Its International Graduate Talent Program is modelled after US universities and involves recruiting international and Danish bachelor candidates to a five-year doctoral programme, with a grant of DKK276,000 (US$39,190) for the first two years, rising to DKK400,000 (US$56,800) for the last three years.

It will expand the number of students recruited from outside the Nordic countries by 18%, from 662 to 728 in 2017.

Georgia Tech has a well developed international presence on several continents with satellite campuses in Metz, France; Athlone, Ireland; Shanghai, China; and Singapore. Several international projects are also located in Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico.

The reason for the great international engagement of Georgia Tech is its prioritisation of international experiences when recruiting scientific staff, which is not a rule at US universities. As a result, 40% of the students are gaining international experience.

At EPFL, internationalisation is a basic component of the strategic development plan. Some 10,000 students from 120 countries are studying at EPFL, of which only 55% are Swiss at the bachelor level. It has faced criticism in Switzerland over the perceived difficulty Swiss students encounter in gaining access, and when they do, they find the murderous tempo makes it difficult to succeed.

The rector of EPFL, Patrick Aebischer, was recruited in 2000, and has expanded the external funding of EPFL significantly, having secured 76 European Research Council grants (2007-13) – the fourth most successful institution when it comes to securing ERC grants. EPFL also hosts one of the European Commission flagship projects, the Human Brain Project.

The funding from the ERC was central for the successful implementation of tenure tracks and about half of the professors who have had a tenure track have had ERC funding.

KAIST has increased internationalisation. President Sung-Mo 'Steve' Kang is seeking to increase the number of internationally recruited professors from 49 in 2014 to 70 when his mandate expires in 2017. Also, the number of international students is being increased to 1,000 or one in 10 students.

The institute is also attempting to become more globally competitive. For instance, the government invested KRW825 billion (US$713 million) in 2008-12, in its ‘world-class university’ project, which brought top international scientists and Nobel prize winners to KAIST for collaborative projects.

The faculty of Nanyang Technological University, which is ranked number one in the Times Higher Education ‘rising young universities’ ranking and in the QS ‘Top 50 Under 50’ ranking, is 70% international, and a “top-down university management (with big ears)” has been enforced under the leadership of Professor Bertil Andersson, former rector of Linköping University, Sweden, and head of the European Science Foundation in Strasbourg.

University reforms in Denmark and Finland

The case studies in the second report from the Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis show that the intentions of the reforms in Denmark and Finland, which include measures aimed at management, organisation, financial factors and autonomy, have had significant impact on both the managerial ability and organisation of the universities of Copenhagen and Aalto.

Management and leadership have been professionalised. New organisational models for the universities have been created. Power shifts have been effectuated in which the board, president or rector and institutional managers have, relatively speaking, been given more ‘power’.

One question, of course, is whether the new management and governance reforms have also created more internationally competitive universities, and in particular heightened their international standing. What recruitment and internationalisation strategies have been used?

The reason for the Danish international expansion, which is demonstrated by high scientific production and citations, and climbing on the international rankings, is a unified agreement across all political parties to ringfence higher education and research in government budgets.

In particular, the Globalisation Fund 2006-2012 has had an impact with an extra 0.5% of GNP allocated to internationalisation of research, amounting in total to DKK40 billion (US$5.7 billion).

In Finland, the ministry of education has promoted internationalisation measures over the past decade, raising the number of international students recruited to 20,000 in 2013 and expanding foreign-born international staff from 12% in 2010 to 20% in 2014, a significant increase encouraged by new requirements in research grant funding. As reported by University World News Finland has developed an ambitious plan for international education exports.

‘Planless expansion’

The development of total number of staff at universities is an indicator that can describe how the sector of higher education is attracting financial resources compared to other sectors. Danish universities increased from 4,000 researchers at the universities in 1981 to 17,000 in 2009, an increase of 325%.

In Sweden the increase was from 11,500 to 18,000 (56.5%) in the same period. Danish universities have become more international in their focus and in their recruitment, while Swedish universities have become more local and national, with reduced international visibility and attraction.

University World News asked Enrico Deiaco of the Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis, who was principal investigator of the Danish and Finnish studies, whether by comparison Swedish development over the past decade could be characterised as a "planless university expansion".

Deiaco said Denmark and Finland have had a clear political strategy to reorganise their university system by various mergers and strategic alliances with an aim to reorganise the entire system to make it more competitive.

“This has created a sort of structural adjustment with larger and more competitive units, whereas Sweden has expanded the university sector without this strategic view of what is best for the system as a whole. That has led to an increase in the number of universities and colleges.”

Professor Mats Benner of Lund University and KTH-Royal Institute of Technology, speaking to University World News, said internationalisation has indeed been a subject of much discussion in Swedish research policy, at least since the 1980s when Sweden began approaching the EU.

“The main challenge today is not so much at the level of policy discourse – the intention to be part of the world has been repeatedly expressed and many steering initiatives are in place. A more coherent approach would help, though – very many programmes are available and many of them are short-lived and not always anchored in strong analytical foundations of needs and demands,” he said.

He said the main challenge lies in the international mobility of Swedish scholars and the rather weak international approach of Sweden's universities.

“Recruitment to top positions is still a predominantly national – and even local – affair, and Swedish institutions are still very much Swedish in their outlook and approach. Comparing this with the cosmopolitan approach of Asia's (or US) universities with their global reach in recruitment and truly international campus life, one sees that Sweden still has a long way to go.”

He believes the current refugee crisis could have been an opportunity for change but currently seems primarily to block major policy initiatives due to the pressure on public finances.

“It would be a missed opportunity if the refugee crisis was not translated into an overhaul of how Sweden funds and organises its education and research,” he said.

However, Kåre Bremer told University World News that internationalisation is a central item in the plans of Swedish universities. “Universities operate in an increasingly international context and Swedish universities are no exception. Swedish universities have, however, too much internal recruitment of academic staff and need to increase their efforts to recruit internationally renowned scientists as a strategic tool for renewing and widening their activities in teaching and research.”

Whatever strategy Sweden develops, the need to make progress was underlined last week by Andreas Göthenberg and Olle Wästberg of the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education, or STINT.

In an article in a leading newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, they warned that Sweden’s universities “have to manage to become global”. They said STINT, which has for two decades invested in projects where Swedish researchers collaborate with researchers abroad, will continue this funding, “but the serious situation for internationalisation of the Swedish higher education sector” now demands a change of strategy.

“We will become an actor that is directly influencing Swedish universities and university colleges to speed up internationalisation,” they said. “We cannot fall behind.”

Budget cuts

It is a paradox now that Finland and Denmark, having managed to effectuate significant university reforms to the point where they are being held up as ‘good practice’ cases for Sweden to follow, are now both under severe budgetary cutbacks.

The Finnish economy now has among the highest budgetary deficits in Europe, and the government is being forced into cutting public funding significantly.

At the same time, the Løkke Rasmussen government in Denmark has broken a two-decade long policy of ring-fencing higher education and research, and this is a decision born of political choice and not warranted by economic deficits alone, which makes it almost impossible to understand.