Everyone wants one, no one knows what it is, and no one knows how to get one." That is how the quest for the world-class university was neatly summed up by Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.
So what makes a great university? Does it have to be based on the Western model or, more specifically, the US model, or is it solely down to the quality of the research it conducts? In our cover story, one man, the "ultimate academic tourist", describes his decade-long journey to find out.
The "spark of research engagement that was almost too bright to observe" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nearly persuaded Graeme Harper, professor and chair of COLLAB, the global collaboration laboratory, that this was the "key component", but more discoveries brought even more questions. "The more investigation that takes place, the more it becomes obvious that ... starting in the wrong place often produces entirely the wrong answer," he explains.
Perhaps the right place to start is with the ideals that make an institution a university. For Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, it is simple: "the free and open communication of ideas, academic freedom, disinterestedness, working for the common good". At the Managing University Reputation in a Competitive World conference last week at the University of Hong Kong, he insisted that an institution that does not uphold these fundamental academic values could not be considered a university.
These values should be protected at all costs, he said. "Everything else is secondary: without them, we stop being universities."
On this, Professor Harper agrees: the essence of a great university is "a gathering of important ideals". It is, he believes, "not one thing alone, not one capacity in itself, but a combination of many human activities".
And there is a little bit of greatness to be found in most institutions. If you want to know what really makes a university work, the trick is to talk to the right people. Ask the cleaners, the gardeners, taxi drivers and librarians, Professor Harper says, and leave the academics until last.
Greatness for universities is never thrust upon them: they work hard to achieve it, and when they do, they have to work even harder to maintain it. One measure of greatness is provided by rankings, and topping all league tables is Harvard University. How did it get there? The answer - leadership - is as you'd expect, but the explanation from the dean of Harvard College is not. It seems that everyone who enters the institution aspires to greatness and considers himself or herself to be a leader from the moment of joining and for ever after.
To be the best, to want the best, is at the heart of human ambition. And a desire to spread knowledge globally to as many people as possible can only be applauded. In recent times, the globalisation of higher education has accelerated at an exhilarating rate, with increased mobility for both students and staff, a proliferation of branch campuses and an expansion of for-profit providers. The world may be changing, but some things must always remain the same. Higher education's fundamental academic values are precious, and we should never forget what a university, especially a great one, is for.