Excellence requires autonomy, say conference speakers

Freedom from government interference is crucial to building world-class universities, an international gathering has heard. Phil Baty reports from Shanghai

November 2, 2009

Government interference in the running of universities is damaging efforts to build world-class institutions, an international conference heard on 2 November.

In Shanghai on the opening day of the Third International Conference on World-Class Universities, speakers criticised the restrictions on institutional autonomy imposed by governments in a number of nations.

In a keynote speech, Jamil Salmi, the World Bank’s tertiary education co-ordinator, said that there was a growing international “preoccupation” with world-class universities, measured through ranking systems such as Times Higher Education’s annual World University Rankings.

This reflected “the general recognition that economic growth and global competitiveness are increasingly driven by knowledge, and that universities play a key role in that context”, he said.

“Indeed, rapid advances in science and technology… provide great potential for countries to accelerate and strengthen their economic development.”

But he added that some governments’ efforts to create world-class institutions were being hampered by excessive regulation.

Outlining the key “ingredients” of a world-class institution – including generous funding, highly qualified faculty and excellence in research – he stressed that “governance is the most important factor”.

He cited Barcelona Football Club – one of the best in the world – to illustrate his point. He asked delegates: “If Barcelona had to operate under the same rules that governments impose on universities, would it still be world class?

“What if Barcelona had to pay civil service salaries, was not able to keep the money it made from its games to attract world-class players, or could not get rid of players who do not perform?” he asked. “What if it was not the coach, but the minister for sport, who selected the team and gave the instructions?”

He added: “Is football more important than education?”

Dr Salmi compared Malaysia’s University of Malaya, ranked 180th in Times Higher Education’s 2009 rankings, with the National University of Singapore, ranked 30th.

They began as a single institution before splitting in 1962. Dr Salmi said that the Singaporean university had flourished as a result of better funding and a clear strategy, but also because of its greater autonomy.

Simon Marginson, head of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, also cited the success of the institution, which he said had “developed more autonomy, more space to move”.

“The National University of Singapore has a president who is not appointed by the Government: I’d like to see neighbouring countries allowing that, too,” he said.

“It is important to free up strategic leadership – without that you will not be world class.”

In a paper for the conference, he writes that in Malaysia, “government control as exercised through appointment was direct and affected leader behaviour”.

The paper adds that although vice-chancellors in the country can be reappointed after the standard three-year term of office, those “regarded by government as too independent are not appointed for a second term”.

Other countries have similar problems.

Professor Marginson’s paper quotes Mai Trong Nhuan, president of the Vietnam National University, saying: “When I met the President of Vietnam, I said: ‘I do not ask you for more money. Give me more autonomy. More freedom. More responsibility. More transparency. More flexibility to meet the requirements of our society and globalisation.’”

Professor Marginson added: “National government can build global capacity or strangle it with red tape.”


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