World-class universities or systems?

A report published last year in the United Kingdom described the radical changes affecting tertiary education in many parts of the world today as an ‘avalanche’.

But the rupture factors that are transforming the tertiary education landscape are not that recent. I believe that the avalanche started eleven years ago, when Shanghai Jiao Tong University published the first Academic Ranking of World Universities, widely known today as the famous—some would rather say infamous—Shanghai ranking.

For the first time, all over the world, university leaders, policy-makers, employers, students and the public were provided with a hit parade of ‘world-class universities’.

Notwithstanding their methodological limitations, the Shanghai ranking and the various international rankings that have followed (Times Higher Education, Leiden University, QS, Webometrics, Taiwan HEEACT’s ranking of scientific papers, etc.), have put the relative performance of universities at the center of public debates, and even in the realm of political priorities in some countries.

For example, when Vladimir Putin was reelected as president of the Russian Federation in 2012, he declared in his first official speech that he wanted to see at least five Russian universities in the global top 50 within five years. Sure enough, the Minister of Education announced a new Excellence Initiative within a few months, following the example of countries such as France, Germany, South Korea and China, which have attempted to boost the standing of their elite universities through substantial additional resources.

In 1975, the Nigerian writer Nkem Nwankwo published a satirical novel entitled My Mercedes is Bigger Than Yours. Its title is an apt analogy for what university vice chancellors/presidents/rectors are going through today.

They are under constant pressure to prove that their university is doing everything possible to progress in the global ranking. While this can sometimes have a positive effect if it helps tertiary education institutions focus on improving further what they are good at, it can also induce obsessive behaviors and push them in the wrong direction.

For instance, some universities have appointed a ‘ranking officer’ to guide them in playing to the league tables. The global race to recruit top scientists and academics has led to bidding wars for talent in some cases. Perhaps most preoccupying is the mission drift resulting from giving undue priority to research and publications in prestigious journals, often at the expense of excellence and relevance in teaching and learning.

Excessive attention to the development of world-class universities as a source of national prestige can also have adverse consequences in terms of system-wide tertiary education policies, ranging from raising unreasonable expectations of a rapid rise in the rankings to creating dangerous distortions in resource allocation in favor of a few flagship institutions, to the detriment of the overall tertiary education system when additional resources are not available.

These unhealthy developments raise questions about the significance and contributions of world-class universities. To make an architectural analogy, is the tallest building of any country representative of housing conditions in that country? Is looking at the position of each university the most appropriate way of assessing the overall performance, utility and health of tertiary education systems?

For instance, does the strength of the US tertiary education system come essentially from the global dominance of the Ivy League universities? Or must we acknowledge and assess the importance of other features, such as the large community college sub-sector, the federal student aid program, a long tradition of outreach and retention programs, which are vital components in the tertiary education sector for promoting equal education opportunities and training the workforce that the US economy needs?

Defining academic excellence principally in reference to the position of universities in the global rankings is misleading and potentially dangerous in that it can distract attention from the priority areas of genuine impact.

When research output becomes the main yardstick for measuring the performance of tertiary education, other equally vital goals, such as learning quality, equality of opportunities, and the contribution of tertiary education institutions to local development, are at risk of being neglected.

The growing debate on measuring learning outcomes at the tertiary education level is testimony to the recognition that excellence is not only about achieving outstanding results with competitively selected outstanding students, but ought perhaps to be also measured in terms of the added value achieved by institutions in addressing the specific learning needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

In conclusion, the hype surrounding world-class institutions must be tempered to allow recognition of the contributions of the entire tertiary education system in promoting the most useful, most efficient, and highest quality opportunities that it can offer.

At the end of the day, world-class systems are not those that can boast the largest number of highly ranked universities. They are, instead, those that manage to develop and sustain a wide range of good quality and well articulated tertiary education institutions with distinctive missions, able to meet collectively the great variety of individual, community and national needs that characterize dynamic economies and healthy societies.

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