From where I sit: Don't assume one (US) size fits all

April 15, 2010

As developing countries build their higher education sectors, many see the "US-style university" as the desired model. This typically means an institution that combines teaching at most or all postsecondary levels with a broad, internationally recognised research programme, all in a campus-like setting. Faculty are expected both to teach and to carry out research in areas that are globally recognised as important. But is this really an appropriate model?

Most of the world-famous US universities that serve as inspiration for this model began as small educational institutions responding to the needs of their local communities. As they were successful in meeting those needs, they grew in size and stature. Over time, their growth enabled them to serve a larger community, which eventually became national and then international in scope.

However, throughout this process there were other institutions around them that also were responding to aspects of the educational needs of the community, and growing according to their successes. Thus, the great universities are but the tip of a pyramid of institutions of all types that evolved naturally in the context of the issues facing the US in the 20th century. The broad base of this pyramid provides a diverse societal workforce that successfully undergirds, enables and supports the efforts of the elite institutions.

The problems of transferring this model to other parts of the world are many. For example, it was built to respond to a context that is not, by and large, the evolving context of the 21st century. Worse, its intrinsic US context does not correspond to the issues and opportunities facing countries in the developing world today.

Many countries considering this model do not have the base of the pyramid in place. Without it, the elite university cannot effectively play the role that its proponents assume. And last but not least, this is the most expensive model of higher education ever invented. Combining research and teaching may have benefits, but it also has high costs. Research faculty command relatively high salaries compared with teaching faculty, and they teach relatively few students. Research facilities are expensive to build and maintain. Even the US is finding that it can no longer afford this model.

There are components of the US model that are worth copying, such as the focus on excellence, merit and academic freedom. However, developing countries should concentrate on building institutions of quality that respond to the issues, challenges and opportunities of their own situations. They should investigate radically different approaches that lower the cost of higher education while achieving appropriate educational goals.

This independent path is the best way to serve their citizens and their futures. In time, the best of these institutions will come to define "world class" in 21st-century terms, just as happened in the US in the 20th century.

Countries that are now building their educational infrastructure have a unique opportunity to create a 21st-century vision of higher education unburdened by the weight of what went before. They should embrace that opportunity rather than copying another nation's old model, no matter how successful it was in its time.

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