Building a world-beating academy, so the argument goes, takes decades, even centuries of meticulous investment in infrastructure, postgraduates and reputation.
But what if you could use the internet to leapfrog this slow and steady process by plugging your students into the best lectures from across the world?
This was the hope of a number of delegates attending a conference on education in the Middle East and North Africa that recently took place in London, particularly those from nations struggling with limited finances, huge numbers of young people and continuing security problems.
Fathi Akkari, former minister of higher education in post-revolutionary Libya, told Times Higher Education that he was in the UK to visit The Open University, hoping to agree a partnership that would offer degrees delivered jointly with the institution’s Libyan counterpart.
He predicted that in 40 years, the “traditional” university would be a thing of the past and students would study and take their exams online.
Professor Akkari, now a government adviser, told delegates at Gulf Education, held last month, that physical universities would end up like museums because higher education would switch to the web.
Online education is “easier, faster and less expensive”, allowing Libyan students access to lecturers in Europe, the US and Asia, he said.
“We can use the capability from all over the world…there will be no borders,” he added. “We should think…not about building new campuses in the traditional way but…about online education and the electronic university.”
Libya needs to expand its higher education system rapidly, Professor Akkari explained, because more than a third of its population is of school age.
Online education is also attractive because continuing security problems have made it difficult for contractors to start work on new campuses, he added.
Iraqi Kurdistan, like Libya, has a burgeoning young population – in 2010, more than half its people were under 20 – although it is substantially more stable than the North African country. Officials from the region were more sceptical about online higher education.
“Many of my colleagues on this platform have said the future is digital. I think before we go for digital we have to go for [teaching] English, and that is indeed what we are doing,” said Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Kurdistan’s high representative to the UK.
Without good standards of English, online access to course material from the top UK and US universities would be of little use to young Kurds.
Ali Saeed, Kurdistan’s minister of higher education, also admitted that the region’s internet infrastructure was not good enough to stream high-quality lectures from other countries.
“We need to build the information technology system in the Kurdistan region in order to benefit from online teaching and…applications,” he said, adding that it was too early to start teaching postgraduates online there.
For now, Dr Saeed explained, Kurdistan’s strategy was to continue to train its postgraduates overseas, the majority of them in the UK – albeit at a hefty cost of £100 million a year.