Collective efforts lift us all to the starry heights

November 5, 2004

Everyone everywhere gains by combining competition with collaboration in higher education, argues Charles Vest

In its new ranking of the world's 200 best universities, The Times Higher found the top three to be US institutions - Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There are good reasons why US universities fare well in competitive rankings, and other nations could profitably consider the structural and policy factors that help them achieve such heights.

But collaboration may be even more profoundly important than competition in determining the future of higher education. Indeed, informal global cooperation is already beginning to create the meta-university that will see the best scholarship and teaching shared worldwide.

The factors I believe contribute the most to the excellence and competitive success of US higher education include:

* The diversity of institutions - from small liberal arts colleges to large public and private universities - allows students to select the school that best matches their needs

* New assistant professors have freedom to choose what they teach as well as research

* Our research universities weave together teaching and research in ways that bring freshness, intensity and renewal to both activities

* We welcome students, scholars and faculty from abroad. Their intellectual and cultural richness help define our institutions

* Support of frontier research in our universities has long been an important responsibility of the federal government, which awards grants to researchers on the basis of their merit in a competitive marketplace of ideas

* A tradition of philanthropy, fostered by US tax law, encourages alumni and others to support our colleges and universities. Scholarship funds they provide allow talented students from families of modest means to attend even the most costly schools

* Open competition for faculty and students drives excellence.

Such factors could be integrated into the cultural and political contexts of other nations and perhaps be improved on.

The enormous success and impact of the Indian Institutes of Technology, established in the 1960s, demonstrate that great universities based on this research-intensive model can rise rapidly anywhere in the world.

Indeed, the situation is far from static. Germany is working to better integrate the powerful free-standing Max Planck Research Institutes with German universities to capture the dynamism that comes from interweaving teaching and research.

In the UK, issues of access, affordability and top-up fees are subjects of intense debate, and visionary activities such as the Cambridge-MIT Institute seek to better couple the stellar intellectual power of British universities to national competitiveness, productivity and entrepreneurship.

China has committed to transforming several of its universities into world-class research-intensive institutions, as have Singapore, Mexico and many other nations. The next 50 years should produce healthy competition and progress in advanced learning and research. But cooperation is very important, too.

The internet and worldwide web will make possible global research collaboration, sharing of knowledge and collective creation of educational materials.

Local universities will not be displaced or replaced. Rather, teaching and the creation of knowledge at each university will be elevated by the Linux-like efforts of a multitude of individuals and groups all over the world. This tectonic shift can be thought of as the emergence of the meta-university.

Of course, scholars and teachers have always advanced their work collectively through conferences, seminars, and correspondence. But the scale of participation, speed of propagation and sophistication of access and presentation that we will see in the coming years are unprecedented.

One catalyst for this new dimension of global cooperation is MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative, which is making the basic teaching materials for virtually all our subjects available on the internet at no charge to all teachers and learners.

The residential university will continue to be the best venue for bright young men and women to live and learn among dedicated scholars and teachers. Institutional quality will be raised through competition and adaptation of elements of the US model.

But the meta-university - the electronically enabled global collaboration of teachers and researchers - will rapidly advance and improve higher education everywhere.

Charles M. Vest is president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Pursuing the Endless Frontier: Essays on MIT and the Role of Research Universities (MIT Press, £16.95).

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