THE Young University Rankings 2019: how to build a university

Designing a new university is complicated and one model does not fit all. Alain Fuchs offers a 10-point brief of factors to consider in every case

June 25, 2019
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University models are in many ways comparable to great utopias; often perfectly shaped on paper, but difficult to bring into the real world.

My ultimate conviction is that the construction of a university is the result of specific historical, human, cultural, political and scientific considerations. Like cathedrals, they evolve over time, but the original design remains.

It is a mistake to think about building a university in 10 years, but it is also wrong to think that one cannot lay the permanent foundations for it in that time.

Higher education is evolving and changing rapidly across the world in order to meet the new demands and expectations of national and regional governments, employers and students. As a result, traditional models of what a university is are being challenged and modified, and new models are being tested. Yet so far, no single model seems fully fit for purpose in our increasingly complex, globalised world.

It is widely recognised that partnerships must be at the heart of the 21st-century university, but it is also acknowledged that strategic and long-term partnerships are very difficult to achieve, especially when striving to do this across the multiple levels of research, education and training, enterprise, knowledge exchange and public engagement. For this reason, in some countries solutions have been found in order to bring these local and historical partners together in new comprehensive universities and thus provide them with a new institutional definition.

Among these countries, France is in the process of reshaping its university landscape thanks to its national programme, Initiatives d’excellence. Still, if there are some inspiring models, there is no ready-made solution, and each initiative has to be considered as a particular case and the product of a specific situation. Such an assertion is not a defensive reflex, revealing an inability to reform. On the contrary, it is a realistic approach, reflecting a desire to build an institution over time.

Based on my experience of what it takes to create a new university, here are my top 10 tips.

1. Don’t underestimate the challenge of mergers

Always bear in mind that creating a new university is not just an organisational problem of building a workable merger; it is a linked problem of strategy, structure, culture and identity, people and leadership.

2. Establish a deep sense of collective vision

The main issue is one of integration and collaboration, rather than simply of excellence, but it needs to be fostered, deepened and broadened as you develop a culture of and commitment to innovation. You must therefore not only aim to be a world-class university, but to establish a deep sense of collective vision and to become and operate as a harmonious congregation.

3. Build a narrative

Communication, both external and internal, is a weakness in most institutions around the world. Work should therefore be undertaken to develop a short, sharp message that can be easily understood by all, both outside and inside the new university. A directional narrative gives a sense of where the new university is going, what is being proposed and why, and how and when it will take place. This should be a story that has clear milestones, and in which the past, present and future are linked. Such a document should also stress that the university’s development is an organic one.

4. Implement a clear and balanced decision-making process

While the freedom and creativity of scientists and scholars must be promoted through bottom-up approaches, top-down strategies and interventions are necessary in the early stages to shape the institution’s direction and identity. Consequently, as the principal academic body in a university, the academic senate can be a very effective representative group, whose responsibilities, powers and membership must be clearly defined, and whose size must not be too large in order to be effective, nimble and responsive.

5. Focus on adding value across the board

The strength of a new university centres on proof of its added value through concrete and major common achievements. Therefore, it is vital that new synergies be identified, nurtured and promoted across all academic, administrative and corporate processes and not simply in research.

6. Set targets that are achievable and sustainable

Ultimately, creating a university is a problem of delivering outcomes in the short, medium and long term. Consequently, setting deliverable targets across different timescales becomes a crucial political problem. Making great progress in a relatively short time is laudable, but it is also potentially dangerous if it precipitates into haste. The new university has to manage the temporal problem of achieving purpose and momentum in the short term while also providing the seeds of sustainable development in the medium and long term. This is one of many dualities that any new university faces as an institution. The central duality is how to build a credible and progressive institution while also nurturing and sustaining relationships with its constituent parts.

7. Learn by doing

The complexities of engaging with these dualities over time requires an explicit “learning by doing” process. The new university must capture what it learns and respond to any mistakes of judgement or direction in a judicious manner.

8. Be flexible

As the new university develops and innovates as an institution, it should explicitly adopt the principle of flexibility of response, in order to avoid becoming locked into routines that may appear to be beneficial in the short term, but may in the medium term create problematic unintended consequences.

9. Start small and celebrate achievements

Launch small-scale events and programmes with high chances of success to complement major initiatives in order to involve as many staff as possible in thinking in new, collaborative ways. Each of these quick wins should be celebrated.

10. Think long term

The challenge of real estate development means new universities must anticipate and think on long timescales, otherwise the development of the university will be held back. 

Alain Fuchs is president of Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris.

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Reader's comments (1)

As an academic member of a young university, I find this very insightful.