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Seeking an alternative to the World Class University model

John Douglass

The concept of the World Class University is cited across the world, but it represents a paradigm that is not achievable or useful for many countries. There is a need for another paradigm – the Flagship University – a model that does not ignore international standards of excellence focused largely on research productivity, but is grounded in national and regional service.

UC Berkeley campusA World Class University (WCU) is supposed to have highly ranked research output, a culture of excellence, great facilities, a brand name that transcends national borders.

But perhaps most importantly, it needs to sit in the upper echelons of one or more of the world rankings generated each year. That is ultimate proof for many government ministers and for much of the global higher education community. Or is it?

The relatively recent phenomenon of international university rankings is fixated on a narrow band of data and prestige scores.

Citation indexes are biased toward the sciences and engineering, and biased in which peer-reviewed journals are included – largely from the United States and Europe, and in the English language – and tilted towards a select group of brand-name universities that always rank high in surveys of prestige, the number of Nobel laureates and other markers of academic status.

It is not that these indicators are not useful and informative. But government ministries are placing too much faith in a paradigm that is not achievable or useful for the economic and socio-economic mobility needs of their countries. They aim for some subset of universities to inch up the scale of this or that ranking by building accountability systems that influence the behaviour of university leaders, and ultimately faculty.

Some of this is good, creating incentives to reshape the internal culture of some national university systems that have weak internal quality and accountability policies and practices. But it also induces gaming by university leaders and arguably is pushing institutional behavior toward a vague model of global competitiveness that is not in the best interests of the nations they serve.

In a recent publication, I advocate the notion of the Flagship University as a more relevant ideal – a model for public institutions and perhaps some private institutions, one that could replace or perhaps supplement and alter the perceptions, behaviour and goals of ministries and universities in their drive for status and influence in society. This model does not ignore international standards of excellence focused largely on research productivity, but is grounded in national and regional service, and with a specific set of characteristics and responsibilities that, admittedly, do not lend themselves to ranking regimes.

Indeed, one of my goals is to articulate a path and a language of a Flagship University that de-emphasises rankings and helps broaden the focus beyond research. Flagship universities are research-intensive institutions, or are in the process of becoming so, but have wider recognized goals.

After a long period of governments and their ministries attempting to shape the mission and activities of universities, including various accountability schemes and demands focused on the normative World Class University model, we need to enter a period in which institutions themselves gain greater autonomy and financial ability to create or sustain an internal culture of self-improvement and evidence-based management.

The great challenge for the network of universities that are truly leaders in national systems of higher education is to shape their missions and ultimately to meaningfully increase their role in the societies that gave them life and purpose.

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Comments to "Seeking an alternative to the World Class University model":
    • Paul

      An interesting argument, surely, and you’re absolutely on the mark in suggesting that the costs of a “World Class University” are probably unsustainable for many locations around the world — and especially, absent sizable investments on the part of a central government willing to buy prestige.

      Like the United States, European institutions (and South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong) invest huge government funds in research institutes (for the U.S., think Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore). But public funding for higher education at the state level is plummeting as a total share of expenses.

      What struck me, however, about your suggestion that we embrace “Flagship Universities” is that it seems to me we already have them: Isn’t that what, across the United States, we so often call our Land Grant universities? They have a broader (and public service) mandate that embraces forestry, or mining, or agriculture, or mechanical engineering roles. And those are supposed to benefit a much broader section of the general population than a small cohort of undergraduate students privileged enough to be able to attend.

      Just a thought, there …

      [Report abuse]

    • Michael

      At graduation time, you begin to really wonder if Berkeley really deserves the reputation of a “world class” university.

      On the road to a PhD, I obtained degrees from a community college, an inner-city four-year college, a flagship university in the mid-west, and finally, Berkeley. For the first three graduations, the university covered the cost of regalia.

      However, Berkeley insists on nickel-and-diming its students to the very bitter end, and I had to scrape up the $150 for a robe, an extreme hardship for a grad student supporting a family. Furthermore, at the graduation ceremony at least a dozen impoverished students endured the indignity of having to stroll across the stage without the regalia.

      I shall never forget how we were treated and I hope others will join my revolt. If I ever have any money to donate to higher education, it will never be Berkley, but rather the community college that called my house several times to encourage me to attend the graduation ceremony.

      [Report abuse]

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