World-class or flagship – Which way for universities?

In their pursuit of competitiveness, higher education institutions across Africa set themselves the target of becoming ‘world class’, and labels such as a ‘world-class African university’ are not uncommon in their mission statements.

While we do not challenge the pursuit of excellence and competitiveness inherent in the bid by universities to be ‘world-class’, we are against the quest to satisfy world-class status at the expense of African priorities and challenges.

In the search for authentic, leading and competitive African universities should we not be talking about ‘flagship’ rather than 'world-class'” universities?

According to John Aubrey Douglass, the pursuit of world-class university status can be waived in favour of what he terms “the flagship university model, grounded in national and regional service” while still remaining conscious of the international higher education landscape.

His flagship university is a “comprehensive research-intensive university, located in one of its country’s largest urban areas … [and] is in general among the oldest and largest institutions for higher learning of its country”.

Purposes of a flagship institution

In Douglass’s model, a flagship institution has the following purposes:
  • • Advancement of individual human capabilities;
  • • Evaluation of society;
  • • Contributing to a more equitable and prosperous society;
  • • [Creation of a] productive learning and research environment; and
  • • Creation of new knowledge and preservation of past knowledge.
The idea of flagship universities resonates well with the concern for relevance and localness in that they are expected to be comprehensive and research-intensive institutions that are locally, regionally and nationally relevant. Their admission criteria are highly selective; they are widely accessible and representative of the socio-economic and racial and ethnic demography of a country, while simultaneously accommodating international talent.

Transcending world-class criteria, flagship institutions, according to Douglass, identify with local needs as they are broadly engaged in regional and national economic development and public service across all the disciplines, in order to justify their sufficiently autonomous public financing.

From the above characterisation, we argue that it is fitting for an African university to chart the way forward in the direction of the flagship university. This approach is in line with the Association of African Universities' (2004) Accra declaration which includes:

"… a renewed commitment to the development of higher education in Africa as a ‘public mandate’ whose mission and objectives must serve the social, economic and intellectual needs and priorities of the peoples of the African continent while contributing to the global creation, exchange and application of knowledge.

"We therefore caution against the reduction of higher education, under the GATS [General Agreement on Trade in Services] regime, to a tradable commodity subject primarily to international trade rules and negotiations, and the loss of authority of national governments to regulate higher education according to national needs and priorities."

Local, national and regional service

Such a move towards a flagship university will replace the profit-oriented goals of funded university research in the interests of maintaining world-class status and academic excellence based on knowledge for its own sake.

We support the Douglass model, as it maintains the international flavour of a focus on excellence, while foregrounding the necessity for local, national and regional service. This model will also help to remove the centre of gravity of knowledge production from North America or Western Europe.

The need to move away from what Philip Altbach calls “new neo-colonialism” in which “intellectual globalisation” is characterised by inequality cannot be overemphasised.

Africans need to adopt a role as change agents in spearheading the development of rigorous internal research, knowledge and university systems, instead of depending on the research project agendas dictated by former colonial universities and their supporting multinational corporations.

While research in science and technology is crucial for African development issues, there is a fissure between research and knowledge production in the African university and existing data on the physical, social, economic and biological environments in Africa. Africa is on record for being the poorest continent, still ravaged by hunger, disease, poverty, ignorance, corruption, war and bad governance.

Instead of focusing on seeking world-class status, African universities should move forward with indigenising research and knowledge production, taking cognisance of local resources, people, problems and opportunities.

We find the notion of a flagship university most appealing as it draws inputs and outputs from the African environment, as described by Professor Mammo Muchie.

Everyday African realities

In addition to the above suggestions for higher education institutions to advance towards world excellence, there is a need for academic research networking and training, linking research communities on the African continent with each other and extending their activities to the best international research networks.

Furthermore, the creation and construction of a knowledge mass for the advancement of quality research calls for interrelated themes from social and technical sciences to be connected within research programmes.

African researchers and scholars must be called upon to epitomise excellence in scholarship by developing a critical perspective that speaks to everyday African realities, and produce African narratives from their own unique historical standpoint. Nevertheless, research in the African university must surely transcend the confines of Africa as a geographical space in order to remain competitive.

The idea of excellence, as emphasised in the concept of a world-class university, foregrounds among other descriptors, competency, exceptionality, and quality in the sense of distinctiveness and exclusivity.

Excellence, in our view, will only be realised if the African university adopts an African-centred paradigm, providing a space for African peoples to decipher their own experiences on their own terms, philosophies and constructions, instead of being directed through a Eurocentric lens.

Centres of Excellence

The establishment of Centres of Excellence in universities is a step in the right direction in making institutions of higher learning relevant to their social environments. The US$430 million World Bank initiative launched in 2013, Africa Centres of Excellence, aims to strengthen capacity in universities in West and Central Africa.

This innovation seeks to promote regional specialisation among participating universities, and consolidate their ability to dispense quality training and research for the social good of the African people. We foresee such a direction as an avenue for regional collaboration, with the aim of building and sustaining excellence among African universities.

In their search for world-class university status, African universities are caught up in persistently trying to maintain equilibrium between building a globally competitive university and being nationally responsive. These need not be mutually exclusive goals. After all, fundamentally, the notion of a world-class university is a concept which works as a grand vision, buttressing broad-minded, strategic decision-making and planning in universities.

Putting Africa first

We have argued that for a university to earn the name ‘African’, it should foreground African priorities and problems before being global, without any hesitation in placing Africa first.

Only a small number of universities across the world can persuasively aspire to world-class status with respect to teaching, research and public service performance. Nevertheless, we see no defence for African universities to be precluded from seeking world-class excellence.

We therefore contend that although many universities in Africa may be mindful of the global concept of world-class status, such an understanding on its own will not equip them for global competitiveness. We have defended the Africanness of a world-class African university, which should immerse itself in African priorities and challenges in order to desist from the current ivory tower culture which serves the good of elitism and meritocracy.

In our opinion, the quest for an elite university not only downplays, but in fact abandons the African heritage, rooted in its community orientation and African virtues of harmony, reciprocity, humility, solidarity and the common good. Hence we argue that the African university should be African first and foremost, before turning to the pressures of globalism.

We hold that African universities, by virtue of their less powerful position in the world, should not be coerced by powerful global pressures, only to compete as perennial underdogs in the dramatically uneven university marketplace, lest they will be eternally chasing an elusive goal.

Without being overly selective, we propose the possibility of strengthening a few existing, fully established universities in each country to pursue the flagship model, on condition that they prioritise African interests in order to become an authentic African university.

Amasa P Ndofirepi is a senior researcher for the Mzala Nxumalo Centre for the Study of South African Society in Pietermaritzburg and research associate for the University of Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, while Michael Cross is a research professor, higher education studies, at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. This commentary is a substantially edited version of a forthcoming paper.