‘World-class universities’ – The accountability gap

It is interesting to see the ‘world-class university’ wrestling with some of the tensions that exist when they try to justify themselves on anything more than their own excellence. The original model proposed by Jamil Salmi a decade ago was valued for its ability to bring prestige to the host country through its research excellence and talent attraction rather than being valued for its wider public benefits.

Last week, Lin Tian, Yan Wu and Niancai Liu reflected in University World News on the potential that ‘world-class universities’ or WCUs offer to drive societal development beyond merely creating human capital. In their article, “A shift to the global common good in higher education”, they argue that world-class universities make valuable contributions to the public common good, mobilising collective, shared endeavours that benefit all participants.

Service mission

The corollary to this argument is that WCUs benefit all within a society and investing in WCUs is a way of investing in societal development for the benefit of society’s weakest.

They contend that through the service mission “WCUs aim to address the most complex and difficult global challenges for the benefit of human society, transforming the world and contributing to the sustainable and peaceful development of everyone, benefiting all mankind in the areas of economy, culture, politics and environmental protection and building a more inclusive and just world”.

That is without doubt an admirable aim and, certainly, there are a number of world-class universities that do make serious efforts to contribute to creating public value and solving the grand challenges of the 21st century. But at the same time, there remains an heroic assumption in their argument based on the gap between a group of universities aiming to do something (addressing challenges) and realising those aims (making societal contributions).

Current discussions around universities’ societal contributions highlight that this gap arises from a tension between two positions. The first concerns those who say that universities are publicly funded institutions and therefore have a duty to take those public benefits. The second position is that universities are institutions with private interests who are always careful that any strategy choices they make directly benefit their core activities (their teaching and research).

Social exclusion

The way these tensions play out is something I explored at some length in my book University Engagement with Socially Excluded Communities. Although universities have the resources and the political power to benefit these left-behind communities, the problem-owners (the excluded communities) are rarely able to oblige universities to take their problems seriously.

This is not because of a lack of sincerity on the part of the universities concerned. The institutions involved all had engagement strategies that sought to ensure that their work benefited outside communities.

The University of Catania was working to counter mafia influence in Librino, Southern Cross University was seeking to give voice to excluded Aboriginal communities in planning processes, and the University of Salford sought to use its financial muscle to create low-cost bridging lenders in the North West of England.

These various projects all relied on university goodwill without allowing the communities serious co-determination over projects – and there was nothing that allowed social partners to pin universities down, to challenge them or require them to respond to societal needs. Despite all the strategic statements and values claims, the engagement often defaulted to what we called munificent beneficence, almost a kind of charitable activity.

The excluded communities we studied definitely benefited from this outreach work, but it was very difficult for them to place issues that mattered to them on the university’s agenda.

In other universities we studied, for example, there were excluded communities who were facing demands for eviction as part of local regeneration projects and they found it impossible to get the support of their local university to challenge the claims made for the regeneration benefits these evictions would bring with research.

Although individual academics and students were engaging with these communities, there were very few examples of where the university took this forward more strategically. And these included universities which took their societal mission seriously and sincerely endeavoured to offer their academics the opportunities to integrate public service into their teaching and research missions, as long as it did not interfere too much with the universities’ corporate interests.

Power politics

Under these circumstances, there are two recurrent risks in assuming that WCUs are well-positioned to contribute to the common good. The first is that ‘knowledge push’ rather (than ‘problem pull’) determines which activities are chosen by universities to demonstrate their societal duties.

The second is that universities choose for the most powerful (the richest) problem-owners (firms and governments) who have their own resources that can help improve the quality of the teaching and research that universities undertake.

Without effective governance and accountability solutions, universities will drift towards providing solutions for powerful people’s problems, ignoring the billions of problem-owners that lack the wherewithal to cajole or coerce universities to address their problems.

So I welcome the call from Lin et al for WCUs to take the societal mission more seriously and make work of contributing to the common good. But world-class universities – if they are truly committed to this common good – need to give the less powerful some way to voice their interests and concerns and to shape WCUs overall direction, to address this accountability gap.

Without finding ways to give these most excluded, powerless and problematic communities a serious say over the strategic and scientific choices these universities make, these noble aspirations risk running aground rather than transforming the way higher education works within societies to address common grand challenges.

Paul Benneworth is a senior researcher at the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.