An aspirational model for leading universities

The concept of the public 'Flagship University' as a leading national or regional public university has its origins in the emergence of America’s network of public universities in the mid-1800s. It included a devotion to the English tradition of the residential college as well as the emerging Humboldtian model of independent research and graduate studies, in which academic research would, in turn, inform and shape teaching and build a stronger academic community.

But just as important, the hybrid American public university model sought utilitarian relevance. Teaching and research would purposefully advance knowledge and also socio-economic mobility and economic development. Leading public universities also had a role in nurturing and guiding the development of other educational institutions.

For these and other reasons, America’s leading state universities were to be more practical, more engaged in society than their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, evolving and expanding their activities in reaction to societal needs. American universities were to be the embodiment of the Enlightenment: a progressive institution devoted to reason, to individual empowerment, to pragmatism.

It is a socioeconomic relevance model that emerged in other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom’s red brick universities and Latin America’s flagship models, although much less expansive in their mission and actual impact on society.

In more recent decades, leading national universities have undergone a metamorphosis, pushed by increasing expectations for a much more expanded role in society and the competitive needs of national economies. Major public universities of today are very different from their historical counterparts.

A research project based at the University of Oslo’s Centre for European Studies uses the 'Flagship' title to explore how some European universities are adapting to the demands of ministries and businesses to become more engaged in economic development and social inclusion.

Another example of the use of the Flagship moniker is a project focused on collecting data and supporting the development of eight Sub-Saharan African universities by the Centre for Higher Education Trust or CHET. Based in Cape Town, researchers at CHET have used the Flagship title to help outline the current vibrancy, goals and challenges facing these institutions.

Under the title the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa or HERANA, the project initially pursued the hard work of gathering comparative data among the universities and, via a collaborative mode, outlined the idea of the need for an academic core of variables – for example, student-to-faculty ratios, goals, the percentage of faculty with doctoral degrees and correlations necessary for top-tier national universities to pursue institutional improvement.

It is clear from these examples that the Flagship University title means different things to different people, and is often influenced by national context. Internationally, it is only now coming into vogue as a term familiar to academics as well as ministerial leaders.

But a competing and much more dominant paradigm is the rhetoric of the World-Class University that is almost exclusively identified with global university rankings with their myopic focus on research output and selective markers of reputation.

While the pursuit of improved rankings and a claim to World-Class University status continues as seemingly the primary goal for many universities in all parts of the globe, there has been a growing debate about the value and feasibility of this vision. Scholars and university leaders are critiquing this model and seeking more creative ways to look at the role of teaching, community service, research and development and scholarship in higher education.

The New Flagship University

In the book The New Flagship University, I attempt to update the idea of a national leading university, and to outline a holistic picture of its many responsibilities and activities and academic culture, in part reflecting on the most successful institutions found throughout the world.

The New Flagship model purposefully provides an alternative conceptual approach to the World-Class University paradigm that dominates much of the international discussion. Yet my goal is even more ambitious: to support an institutional culture among a select group of institutions that is self-identified or formally so by national or even regional governments and is firmly rooted in their national and regional relevancy.

The book explores pathways for universities to re-shape or expand their historic mission and academic culture, and to pursue organisational features intended to increase their relevance in the societies that give them life and purpose. In this quest, international standards of excellence focused largely on research productivity are not ignored, but are framed as only one goal towards supporting a university's productivity and larger social purpose – not as an end in itself.

A New Flagship University ‘profile’ is organised in four categories or realms of policies and practices. Each relates to the institution’s external responsibilities and internal operations, including:
  • • A Flagship University’s place in national systems of higher education;
  • • The expanse of programmes and activities related to their ‘core’ mission of teaching and learning and research;
  • • Old and new notions of public service and approaches to regional and national economic development; and
  • • Governance, management and internally derived accountability practices that form a foundation for the New Flagship model.
Each policy realm includes examples of policies and best practices at leading national universities.

One important theme is that the path to increased research productivity and improved rankings is not through surgical efforts to boost faculty journal publications, patents and licences. Rather it requires a more holistic approach to shaping the mission, academic culture, and practices of a university to, in essence, take care of the fundamentals outlined in the New Flagship model.

Another theme is that ministerial directives and efforts to force quality improvement and greater productivity, a legitimate concern for all national governments, have limits for expanding the overall social and economic impact of their universities. Ultimately, it will be the internal academic culture and efforts to seek institutional self-improvement that will determine which universities have a greater local, regional, national and global impact.

The Flagship model has a number of major assumptions, including that national and regional higher education systems have significant levels of mission differentiation among institutions and a place for only a select number of truly leading universities; that there is a significant level of policy and practice convergence and best practices that can be adopted to different national cultures and traditions; and that universities can manage their evolution if given enough autonomy and sufficient levels of academic freedom.

The political, economic and cultural peculiarities may make such assumptions a non-reality in many nations – for now. Such was the conclusion for a number of the authors who contributed chapters to the New Flagship University book focused on the role of leading national universities in Latin America, Russia and Asia.

They note that the biggest obstacles often lay in inadequate public funding models, the incalcitrant civil service mentality of faculty, severely inadequate university governance and management structures, mounting governmental controls and, often, political dynamics that make universities inordinately subject to political movements and encroachments.

But all the authors also understood the New Flagship concept as aspirational – essentially a guide and reference point for what was desirable and needed to help shape the discourse in their respective regions.

National higher education systems in Asia and elsewhere are rapidly changing. Many academic leaders and some ministries are beginning to understand that the bell-curve approach of rankings and the research-dominant notion of World-Class Universities are no longer adequate to help guide policy, funding and practice.

Rankings vs Flagships

It is important to note that the New Flagship model is not a rejection of global rankings of universities. Ranking products are here to stay, with good and bad consequences. They are a useful international benchmark for ministries and universities and for students who seek a means to unpack the growing market of higher education providers.

The problem is, to reiterate, they represent a very narrow band of what it means to be a leading university within a region, within a nation, and in turn globally.

Strategic initiatives by national governments, and by university leaders, are getting lost in the weeds of rankings and the rhetoric of 'World Class'.

My hope is that the New Flagship model provides a path for some universities to explain and seek a revised institutional identity, to help them build a stronger internal culture of self-improvement and, ultimately, a greater contribution to the economic development and socio-economic mobility rates that all societies seek.

John Aubrey Douglass is senior research fellow, public policy and higher education, at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, or CSHE, on the University of California, Berkeley campus in the US. He is the author most recently of The New Flagship University: Changing the paradigm from global ranking to national relevancy (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). This essay is based on a chapter in that book, now out in paperback. Douglass recently gave the keynote address on the New Flagship University at the BRICS and Emerging Economies Universities Summit, held in South Africa from 30 November-2 December.