Excellence in the plural

We don't need any more world-class universities, says Rebecca Hughes; what we do need is greater diversity

November 4, 2010

We all agree that a university should strive for excellence, so it would seem incontestable to say that we want more world-class universities.

But my view changed after attending World-Class: The Brave New World of Global Higher Education and Research, an event run by the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA) in Brussels last month. I came away convinced that we may already have enough world-class universities, if these equate only to research-led institutions that seek to compete globally.

In recent years, international higher education has become accessible to more people than ever before. Over the past decade, 50 million students have enrolled worldwide, with no sign of growth slowing. The "massification" of the system is still gaining momentum.

We must deal with the implications even as we continue the business of being academics. From an international perspective, the main requirement for the sector is teaching these students, not conducting research. If we tackle this new world order by acting as if the best model for all institutions is Harvard University, neither teaching quality nor research excellence will survive intact.

In the developing world, the private sector is rapidly expanding to absorb rising numbers of children from socially mobile families; in Europe, the scene is "greying". We can engage with the global situation, or hope that our tiny corner is not touched. The line of least resistance leaves private institutions to cope with student demand and the rest of us to refrain from criticising them if they bring different assumptions, structures and funding models to the table. Personally, I would rather we engage in the debate over rebalancing the demands of teaching and research.

This is an ethical and access issue. The parents of children in China and India will not, and should not, stop asking for good-quality degree programmes as they achieve the conditions of wealth and literacy at which demand for higher education accelerates.

In this, as in other development issues, the imperative for richer countries to act as global good citizens should outweigh self-interest. A one-dimensional idea of excellence motivates everyone with the same incentives and produces a rigid monoculture that can neither reflect nor serve society's diverse demands. We must define excellence in new terms, and understand what it entails for non-world-class universities (the vast bulk of the sector worldwide).

This is no simple task. All that is solid is melting into air, as emerging modes of delivery such as the multi-campus, vocationally oriented university throw up challenges to seemingly basic constructs such as mobility or the international curriculum.

I liked the idea, floated at the ACA meeting, of needing "world-class systems" of tertiary education in the plural, rather than allowing world-class universities to be isolated "islands of excellence".

As someone who is interested in international collaborations, I see the links created between the "haves" and "have-nots" in the system as indicators of a type of excellence, as is evidence of active capacity-building such as sharing curricula and materials with international partners.

As an applied linguist, I am interested in the relationships between words and the effects they have in society. The term "world-class" combined with "university" is as potent a mix as motherhood and apple pie. Who would ever say: "I do not want my institution to be world class"?

But the race to the top is skewing institutional behaviour, as we all pretend that everyone can be above average, and that all can have (Nobel) prizes. The meaning of "world class" has been hijacked and denuded of nuance until it threatens the diversity essential for a vibrant higher education sector. Let us unpick the term, engage with others to find out what it could mean, and then, as Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, argues, "repack the concept in a wider sense".

That does not mean tolerating poor quality; it does mean having the confidence in our own understanding of our profession to articulate and implement the full range of its potential. World-class universities are vital, but only a part of the story.

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