The ‘World-Class’ fad – Time to pursue a grander vision

To a degree unmatched in other parts of the globe, the notion of a ‘World-Class University’ and the focus on its close relative, global rankings of universities, dominates the higher education policy-making of ministries and major universities in Asia.

Why the attention almost exclusively on research productivity and a few key markers of prestige, like Nobel Laureates? One major reason was, and is, that globally retrievable citation indexes (also a relatively new phenomenon) and variables such as research income are now readily available and not subject to the labour intensive, and sometimes dubious, efforts to request and get data from individual institutions.

But another reason is the sense that research productivity and influence remain the key identifiers of the best universities. The ancillary is that other primary missions of the most influential universities, such as high-quality undergraduate and graduate education, a devotion to public service, universities as pathways for socio-economic mobility and regional economic development, are less important and, ultimately, harder to measure.

Yet these are also key activities that require nurturing and expansion for top universities in Asia, and in the larger world.

What is a ‘World-Class University’?

Around the same time as the publication of the first Academic Ranking of World Universities or ARWU ranking in 2003, the mantra of what is and what is not a ‘World-Class University’, or WCU, emerged in full force. This was influenced by the growing anxiety among many nations that they lacked one or more top-tier research universities, which they considered to be crucial to their economic competitiveness – an idea backed by the World Bank.

Because the character, behaviours and attributes of a WCU remain vague even to its promoters, the default is simply to refer to the ARWU or one of a handful of other global rankings of universities that have since emerged.

Most nations in Asia are pursuing higher education policies and funding schemes fixated on uplifting a selected group of national universities into the global ranking heavens.

National goals of one or a handful of universities reaching the top 100, or more ambitiously the top 25, are ubiquitous. Hence, the national role of the university as an engine of socio-economic mobility, a producer of knowledge in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields, a collaborator with local businesses and government agencies or a creator of the next generation of leaders is not relevant in a globally based bell-curve notion of what constitutes the ideal university.

In our view, the ‘World-Class’ rhetoric is hopelessly grounded in rankings and simply delusional for some and distracting and myopic for others – an incomplete thought that needs to be recognised for what it is: a fad. A powerful fad, to be sure.

Not all of it is bad. One positive influence is promoting greater research productivity and eroding the civil service mentality of many academics. Another is increased funding for research. But can one say it has had much if any positive influence on the other vital responsibilities of universities?

At some point, universities need to espouse and embrace a larger vision of their raison d'être. And they need to do this in a powerful way that influences and shapes the ideas of their faculty and their ministries. Step one toward salvation: recognising the WCU rhetoric as inadequate, indeed, an old school idea of a universities’ activities and priorities.

We think it is fair to say that, despite all of the promotion of the ‘World-Class’ nomenclature, the proliferation of conferences and consultants, and money, focused on the idea, a WCU remains an unfulfilling typology.

Simply look at the programmes at the various ‘how to become a WCU’ events held in virtually every corner of the world. Most now try to reconcile the inadequacies of the WCU ‘model’ with discussion of ‘other’ or ‘third mission’ purposes and activities of the best and most influential universities.

The Asian New Flagship University

In our new book, Envisioning the Asian New Flagship University, we and our co-authors explore the history of leading national universities in Asia and contemplate their capacity for innovation by focusing on the ‘New Flagship University’ model.

This model, presented more fully in The New Flagship University – Changing the paradigm from global ranking to national relevancy, envisions the university as an institution that not only meets the standards of excellence focused on research productivity and rankings, but one that is creatively responsive to the larger social needs of their specific national or regional environment and people.

Four ‘policy realms’ are presented that help shape our understanding of a modern university’s broad purpose in society, but also its policies, practices and operational characteristics. This includes its role in national systems of higher education, its core missions of teaching, learning, research, public service and economic engagement, and its internal management and accountability practices.

The ‘New Flagship’ moniker helps to stress that the most productive and engaged universities – those that seek societal relevance – are much more diverse and complex in the range of their activities and goals than in any other time in their history. Take almost any current public research university, and some non-profit privates, and compare their sense of purpose, funding, programmes and expectations of stakeholders, with 50 or even 20 years ago, and they are very different.

Our new book is partially based on a conference held at the Zhejiang University campus in May 2016 that included scholars and practitioners from China, Vietnam, South Korea, India, Japan, Singapore and other Pacific Rim nations.

It explores the impact of the WCU rhetoric and its myopic focus on rankings, the concept of quality in Asian universities and the limitations posed by existing ministerial demands and academic culture and provides examples of leading Asian universities that are, on their own terms, embracing important aspects of the ‘New Flagship University’ model.

An important tenet of that model is that there are limits to the effectiveness of governmental and ministerial interventions in university operations. Most universities in Asia, and within Europe and elsewhere, have had weak internal cultures of accountability and management. Government-driven interventions and funding incentives have pushed much needed reform in much of the world.

Ultimately, however, leading universities need to have greater control and build their own internal academic cultures through efforts focused on institutional self-improvement. The ‘New Flagship’ model attempts to decipher, and provide examples of, pathways for building this culture and for internal accountability practices that bolster academic management.

Beyond the ranking box

Higher education in Asia has a long history of elite, leading national universities that have served the region well over the decades of their existence. Most are highly selective institutions, employing among the best scholars and serving as the primary path for creating a nation’s civic elites in the absence of other post-secondary institutions.

These leading universities have, historically, been grounded in national service, but with a limited vision of their role in socio-economic mobility, economic development and public service. There was little external pressure and internal desire to change.

One thinks of the grand national role played by the University of Tokyo, Zhejiang University, Peking University and Seoul National University in East Asia, and on a smaller scale their counterparts in Southeast Asia and South Asia, all largely fitting the mould of what we are calling the ‘Traditional Flagship University’.

Even as national governments pushed to expand access to higher education, many leading national universities sometimes seemed stuck in time, until recently.

Today’s leading Asian national universities have undergone a metamorphosis, pushed by increasing expectations of a more expanded role in society and the competitive needs of national economies.

Because their mission was primarily ‘internal’, these universities were not initially concerned with competing with other universities outside of their national setting. With the rise of the complex interplay of neoliberalism, globalisation and internationalisation beginning in earnest in the 1990s, however, ministries and universities began to look ‘externally’ for benchmarks of their quality and performance framed almost exclusively around the WCU or ranking paradigm.

While the pursuit of improved rankings continues as seemingly the primary goal for many universities in the Asian Pacific region, there has been a growing debate about the value and feasibility of this vision and the need for alternatives.

A yi liu future?

There is a place for both the ‘New Flagship’ ideals and practices and the desire for the ranking-focused WCU model to co-exist.

The ‘Flagship’ model can be a route to WCU status, but WCU status is less likely to guarantee status as a ‘New Flagship University’. Indeed, the current top-ranked research-intensive universities on the ARWU, and particularly the public universities in the US, were not built around a narrow band of quantitative measures of research productivity or reputational surveys.

The path to national and international relevance, to becoming a truly leading or yi liu university, is rooted in their larger socio-economic purpose and in internal organisational cultures and practices focused on self-improvement.

We argue that the ‘New Flagship University’ provides an alternative framework, and narrative, for leading universities. A new, if very familiar, starting point, adaptable and sympathetic to local-national needs and desires; a modern conception of the university that gives the same weight to economic engagement and civic responsibility as research output. The WCU is an older, post-Sputnik vision of the university.

Fads come and go, but universities can be forever, anchor institutions for nations if they remain broadly relevant.

John Aubrey Douglass is senior research fellow, public policy and higher education, at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. John N Hawkins is professor emeritus in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA, and co-director of the Asia Pacific Higher Education Research Partnership at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawai’i. This is adapted from the introductory chapter in the new book Envisioning the Asian New Flagship University: Its past and vital future (Berkeley Public Policy Press, 2017).