A realistic model for international universities

In the midst of the business-as-usual, controversial and ‘sexy’ global rankings hype comes a new model of excellence. The New Flagship University model put forward by John Douglass from the University of California, Berkeley, in his new book is not only timely, but also a well thought-out initiative.

Douglass does not present his New Flagship model as being a brand new idea, but instead he locates it in relation to broader social and historical contexts and discusses modern adaptations of the original Flagship University idea. The model Douglass offers, therefore, is rooted in a solid foundation of understandings rather than being some vague ideal that has not yet been in existence anywhere else.

Douglass is not concerned with university status, but with their potential well-rounded engagement and excellence, commitments to all-level community building and meaningful educational experiences for everyone universities serve. In other words, the New Flagship model takes the very best out of its original idea as well as borrowing from the 'World-Class University' practice that emphasises research excellence.

The New Flagship model offers an inspirational as well as feasible, realisable university model that countries in the world can aspire to build or look to for ideas. But as Douglass acknowledges in his book, the introduction and pursuit of the model in any one context are not free from the obstacles and challenges posed by a wide range of social, political, historical, cultural and economic factors.

As ideal and inspirational as it is, there is not a single university in Australia and Vietnam, the two systems I am most familiar with, that could adopt this model at the current time.

With regard to Australia, while there are research-intensive universities in Australia, specifically the Group of Eight, the over-promotion of research and rankings together with the intensifying commercialisation of higher education embedded in their policy, pedagogy and practice have tended to overlook the joy and value of teaching and of meaningful international engagement.

Neither have they been engaged rigorously and creatively in student learning in ways that many universities in the United States have been doing, as Douglass references in the book.

Teaching and research excellence

In principle, as Douglass points out, teaching and student learning are not and should not be compromised when research and the internationalisation of higher education are thriving in the Flagship model, both in the old and new versions.

However, when the global rankings mentality combined with the growing marketisation of Australia as a destination for international education dominate both the internal and global competition among Australian universities, then the “purposeful engagement with local economies and leadership in developing public education” that the book describes do not seem to be as appealing to many Australian universities as they should.

With regard to education in Vietnam, the most up-to-date literature identifies and discusses the many problems of Vietnam’s higher education system. These problems are rooted in almost every single aspect of the sector and penetrate all levels of governance and the decision-making process. As presented in the literature, these problems are so serious that the New Flagship model, though highly desirable, is unlikely to make its way to Vietnam in at least the next 20 years or so.

To be fair, at the ad hoc level, national and regional as well as several other ambitious universities in the country have already been developing along the lines of a number of criteria described by Douglass in his new model. For example, Thai Nguyen University and Can Tho University are highly regarded for their community engagement and regional economic capacity building.

At the same time, compared to other research intensive and high-profile universities in Vietnam, Thai Nguyen University, a regional university in the north-eastern part, has been more proactive in initiating and cultivating international engagement activities with ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations – countries, particularly the Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, and Thailand.

The university pays attention to social mobility among students coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds in these countries while doing the same thing for its own students in rural areas in Vietnam.

US model

In conclusion, I see Douglass’ New Flagship model as being the most comprehensive and well-developed model so far for higher education in global contexts and settings.

The model is heavily informed and shaped by American higher education models, but this is not necessarily a negative point, given these models’ recognised success to date and the leading role of US higher education as well as its international influence.

If we consider all the criteria set out in the model, US higher education appears to exemplify the spirit of the model most strongly and clearly.

On this note, the New Flagship model is not just blue-sky thinking but a solid concept that governments and countries would find useful to adopt to reform their higher education systems and deliberate over their future. Of course, there will need to be modifications and a rethinking of the different elements of the model should any attempts be made at this.

Phan Le Ha is professor in the department of educational foundations, College of Education, the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


So far with my experience at four universities around the world (three of them top tier), the better the research, the worse the teaching.

Christopher Haggarty-Weir on the University World News Facebook page