World University Rankings blog: the challenges facing world-class universities

Ellie Bothwell reflects on the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit

October 11, 2015
Source: iStock

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

This famous line, uttered by Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, was also a familiar refrain among academics and university leaders at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in Melbourne last week.

“Any time when I have thought about leaving higher education, a new influx of inspiring students joins the university,” one leader told me at the gala dinner ahead of the two-day conference.

“You’ll notice that once someone starts working in higher education, they rarely leave,” said another.

THE’s summit, held at the University of Melbourne, was full of similarly uplifting comments from both delegates and the prestigious line-up of speakers. But it also examined the challenges that world-class universities are facing and how these may be tackled in the future.

Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley spoke about the tough choices public universities need to make in a climate in which they are rarely defined by the level of state funding they receive, but rather their commitment to “provide an excellent education to the broadest possible [section] of the public”.

We also heard from Brian Schmidt, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics and incoming vice-chancellor of Australian National University, who told leaders to invest more in their young researchers.

The final session of the conference – a panel on the topic of “Leading from the front: global thought leaders debate the current demands and future challenges for those at the helm of world-class universities” – also provided plenty of insight.

Sarah Springman, rector of ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, spoke about the need for universities to focus on “doing the right things” not “doing things right”.

Dan Mogulof, assistant vice-chancellor for communications and public affairs at the University of California Berkeley, said that too often academics think it is enough to inform but do not engage.

“How do we argue for autonomy if the public that we serve struggles to understand our culture and our purpose?” he added.

Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor at the University of Melbourne, predicted that universities will be very different institutions in a quarter of a century.

“Twenty five years from now it will be impossible to define the boundaries of institutions,” he said. “The trend will be for universities, hospitals, research institutes and a whole other range of organisations to be linked together as networks...It will require different management skills and mirror what happens on the internet.”

But what is the single biggest obstacle to universities going forward? Funding was the answer cited by almost all of the panellists. Ed Byrne, president of King’s College London, also added: “For me a major challenge is taking a university almost totally dedicated to research and getting my colleagues to understand that the education they deliver is every bit as important, and to society at large probably the most important thing we do.”

It was my first time attending the World Academic Summit; I joined Times Higher Education less than six months ago. But judging by the comments from delegates I’ll be seeing plenty of familiar faces at the event in Berkeley next year.

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