US still sets pace despite its state flagships falling behind

Private universities will keep US system ahead of Asia for decades yet, conference hears

November 14, 2013

Source: Getty

Enduring strength: private research institutions such as Columbia University give the US a significant advantage

The strength of America’s private universities means that the nation will continue to lead world higher education despite Asia’s rise – but US public universities are falling far behind those private institutions.

Those were the arguments set out by US scholars at the fifth International Conference on World-Class Universities, held in Shanghai last week.

Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said that he judged claims of a coming “Asian century” in higher education to be a “maybe”.

“Well-informed Chinese colleagues tell me privately that a decade or two, maybe more, will be required before the top universities in this country are really and truly level with top universities in the US and, to some extent, Europe,” he told the event, which was organised by the Center for World-Class Universities, part of Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

A key reason why the US would continue to dominate was its “differentiated” system, featuring a variety of distinct types of institutions with student mobility between them. “You can’t have effective research universities if you don’t have them part of a pretty clearly differentiated system where institutions have their role.”

Professor Altbach continued: “The strength of the private system…is a very important advantage of the [US] system as a whole.”

That not-for-profit private research universities could make “autonomous” decisions, generate their own financial resources and also benefit from public research funding was “quite significant for our system”, he argued.

The prowess of US academia would also be sustained by its career structure and by its ability to integrate students from nations such as India and China owing to its “fairly open society”, Professor Altbach added.

Public decline

Meanwhile, William G. Tierney, university professor and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, offered a pessimistic vision of the future of US public universities.

State-funded institutions would, he said, “find it increasingly difficult to retain academic staff targeted for recruitment by well-funded private universities such as Harvard, Stanford, USC and Duke”.

Professor Tierney argued that globalisation had weakened the position of US public universities because it had prompted politicians to cut taxes at the same time that trends such as online shopping had weakened state sales tax revenues.

“Rather than [a university] as a public good, we now have that public good functioning within a market by private providers, and the role of the state is to enable the consumer with some sort of funding, and to regulate those providers in some fashion,” he said.

But, he noted, those who have been “most upset” by this shift have not been the student-consumers but rather “the providers – academic staff and the administrations of the public universities. Public employees have seen their wages decrease and their numbers decline.”

Professor Tierney said that state governments were “going to be unwilling or unable” to fund public universities at rates “that enable them to keep pace with private research institutions, at least in the United States”.

Merge big players: recipe for an Indian premier league

There is a “strong case” for mergers between Indian institutions that would help the nation to create “world-class universities”, a government adviser believes.

Pawan Agarwal, adviser for higher education at the Planning Commission, which is part of the Indian government, told the fifth International Conference on World-Class Universities that he had “causes for optimism”.

There was slowly growing engagement with world university rankings and increasing philanthropic investment in private universities, Mr Agarwal said.

He pointed out that if the different Indian Institutes of Technology were to merge, the resulting single institution would be “among the top 25 in the world”.

The government was “trying to find out if we can work out alliances of different institutions…to improve performance”, Mr Agarwal said.

He lamented the “lack of performance culture overall, even in…top institutions”. But he hoped that this could be addressed by selectivity in research funding, along the lines of the UK system.

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