Asia rankings: Middle Eastern promise

January 1, 1990

How do you build a successful research-intensive university? Ahmet Acar offers his cost-benefit analysis.

As basic engines of the knowledge economy, universities have been assuming wider responsibilities to meet society's growing expectations. Successful universities are expected not only to educate young citizens but also to equip them with employability skills fit for the international market. While research-intensive universities are traditionally assessed on the basis of their success in knowledge creation and the training of academics and researchers, their applied research and technological development activities have become increasingly vital economically. Governments as well as industry are more willing to support research and development activities that have tangible short-term benefits, as opposed to blue-skies research.

Leading research-intensives enjoy international recognition for the quality of their pedagogic environment, their contribution to knowledge creation and their role in upgrading the competency and international competitiveness of key public and private institutions. They are necessarily global in outlook in order to attract students and staff, developing myriad cross-border contacts and collaborations that allow them to hone their skills and benefit from opportunities worldwide.

Middle East Technical University (Orta Dogu Teknik Üniversitesi or ODTÜ in Turkey) has adopted English as its medium of instruction for all degree programmes in order to reach select students and well-qualified academics globally.

Its success in scientific research derives in part from its extensive international collaborations. ODTÜ is the leading university in Turkey and the recipient of 9 per cent of all European Union research funds awarded in the country to date. Its collaboration with industry goes far beyond contract work: 30 per cent of its academics are involved with the R&D companies located in the ODTÜ Teknokent (Technology Park), and in the past decade the ODTÜ ecosystem has created close to 200 successful high-tech firms.

ODTÜ is the only Turkish representative in the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings and is moving up the international league tables generally. However, among the 21 Middle Eastern and North African (Mena) nations, only institutions from Israel, Turkey and Iran are rated among the top 400 universities in the 2012-13 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

The higher education scene in most Mena countries is dominated by a drive to expand the number and/or capacity of universities to accommodate the young people who comprise an especially large portion of their populations. Turkey is no exception: it now has about 170 universities, an additional 100 in a decade. However, owing to insufficient numbers of qualified faculty and a host of other limitations, this rapid expansion threatens to undermine standards. Hence, most Mena countries desire research-intensives that can compete internationally to provide qualified PhDs for their national systems, as well as to undertake original and relevant R&D. Some countries, notably in the Gulf Cooperation Council, have invited international branch campuses to train their youth and have invested in infrastructure to attract overseas firms.

The main challenge in becoming a leading research-intensive is to attract qualified academics and students from all over the world to sustain relevant and research-based curricula at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. This must be complemented by closer collaboration with industry, especially private firms that seek to compete on the basis of efficiency and innovation. (However, most Mena countries have low levels of private sector participation in national R&D, and their large-scale government projects are rarely sufficient to develop a national innovation system.)

Yet in its drive for increased industrial collaboration, the university leadership still has to maintain a balanced view of the institutional mission.

The university is responsible for the past, present and future of society. It has a social and intellectual responsibility to be the "voice" for public welfare and the public good. Hence, despite possible budget cuts, the research-intensive university has to absorb the additional costs of research-based teaching for its continued success. It has to ensure that the market forces that finance research geared towards immediate results and measurable benefits do not crush the academic values that require sustained basic research to satisfy scientific curiosity.

In the Mena region, strong government commitment is needed to create leading research-intensives. Upgrading a promising university or building a brand new one will require continued support and the allocation of exceptional resources. For best results, governments must resist the tendency to over-regulate research-intensives and instead allow them greater autonomy.

The creation of world-class research-intensives correlates closely with robust and competitive economies. Public resources and legislation to build an effective national innovation system, wherein mechanisms and incentives encourage private participation and university-industry collaboration, play an important part in the success of such institutions.

Ahmet Acar is president of the Middle East Technical University, Turkey.

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