Focus excellence initiatives on systems, not universities, expert says

Former World Bank education official warns of potential ‘adverse consequences’ of schemes

December 3, 2015
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Governments should focus on creating world-class higher education systems rather than on increasing the number of their top-ranked universities, a global tertiary education expert has argued.

Jamil Salmi, former coordinator of the World Bank’s tertiary education programme, warns of the potential “adverse consequences” that national “excellence initiatives” could have on teaching quality and student diversity and says that such schemes are “not a substitute for a meaningful reform of the entire tertiary education system”.

“Governments should worry less about increasing the number of world-class universities and dedicate more efforts to the construction of world-class systems that encompass a wide range of good quality and well-articulated tertiary education institutions with distinctive missions, able to meet collectively the great variety of individual, community and national needs that characterize dynamic economies and healthy societies,” Dr Salmi writes in a contribution to a forthcoming book.

He adds that the term “excellence initiative” – which he defines as a “large injection of additional funding by a national government, aimed at upgrading existing universities in an accelerated fashion” – may be a “misnomer” because it appears to “focus more on creating world-class universities – as measured by the global rankings – than on promoting excellence across the board”.

“At best they stimulate the search for excellence in research. But research is only one function of universities. Equally important are the quality of teaching and learning and the value of a university’s engagement with the productive sectors and the communities in their economic and social environment,” he writes.

“Excellence initiatives may engender negative behaviors and carry adverse consequences,” he continues. “Policy makers and university leaders must keep in mind, in particular, the risk of harmful effects on teaching and learning quality, reduced equality of opportunities for students from underprivileged groups, and diminished institutional diversity.” 

For the chapter he is contributing, Dr Salmi drew on an analysis of excellence initiatives launched by governments across the world between 1989 and 2014.

Such programmes can be a “double-edged sword” if the beneficiary universities do not manage to sustain the level of investment and to meet the higher operating costs “arising from their transformation efforts”, he goes on.

“Indeed, as the beneficiary universities proceed to improve their talent base by recruiting a complement of young and experienced academics to raise their research capacity, they need to worry about their ability to keep these additional academics on board beyond the duration of the excellence initiative.”

In several cases, Dr Salmi says, a country’s deteriorating financial situation has compromised a government’s ability to fulfil its commitments as spelled out in an excellence initiative. The “most extreme example” is Spain: its “entire excellence initiative had to be abandoned two years into its implementation period because of the financial crisis, with dire consequences for the tertiary education system as a whole”.

Dr Salmi’s contribution will be published next year in Global Rankings and the Geo-Politics of Higher Education: Understanding the Influence and Impact of Rankings on Higher Education, Policymakers and Society, edited by Ellen Hazelkorn, policy adviser to the Republic of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority and director of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

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