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Seeking an alternative to the World Class University model

John Aubrey Douglass, Senior Research Fellow - Public Policy and Higher Education, Center for Studies in Higher Education | May 14, 2014

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.