BRICS Universities Summit: the case for (and against) ‘world-class’ institutions

David Matthews blogs from the Times Higher Education BRICS summit in Delhi

December 2, 2015
Woman painting eyes in colours of flag of India
Source: Reuters

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Do emerging economies actually need “world-class” universities? This was the question asked at the opening ceremony of Times Higher Education’s BRICS and Emerging Economies Universities Summit in Delhi.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that “world-class” is synonymous with those institutions at the top of global league tables. Why wouldn’t any country be desperate to have them?

Well, as many graduates of American institutions struggling to pay back their student debt will tell you, they can be very expensive. Stephen Marks, Francois-Xavier Bagnoud professor of health and human rights at Harvard University, told assembled delegates that there was an “ambiguity” about using top Western universities (which still dominate the upper reaches of ranking tables) as a model for emerging economies.

He quoted an Economist analysis from earlier this year that noted “the problem [with such universities] lies in getting value for money on the teaching side”.

Read more: Emerging economies want world class universities too, and they’re doing all they can to get them

Then there is the issue of equity – “elite” institutions in all countries are regularly accused of perpetuating the social and cultural advantages of the wealthiest students. Professor Marks urged universities to “balance the criteria that push up ratings [rankings] with an approach that does not just cater to the well-off and well-connected”.

But as well as equity between students, there is also the issue of equity between countries. Raj Kumar, vice-chancellor of O. P. Jindal Global University, made the point that emerging economies need to support “world-class” universities as part of the “democratisation” of higher education. Such glittering universities should no longer be the “prerogative” of a handful of wealthy Western countries, he said.

It’s hard not to sympathise with his point. The very highest ranked universities don’t just produce productive graduates and feed innovations into businesses. They have enormous intellectual influence and shape how we all see the world – in other words, they are a crucial form of soft power. Rising economies are bound to seek out this influence to complement their growing economic “hard” power.

But, as Professor Marks suggests, the question is whether they are able to do without the arms race of tuition fees and social elitism that arguably mars the achievements of some universities in the West – in other words, whether or not history will repeat itself as emerging economies develop.

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