Flare for inspiration

January 1, 1990
Female scientist examining specimen in jar
Source: Science Photo Library

Developing countries should select flagship universities to become ‘beacon’ institutions and support them to achieve world-class status, says Roger Chao, Jr.

The prestige, competitive advantage and possible financial benefits of being viewed as a “world-class university” are among the key reasons why institutions join the race for global status as measured by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. With Asia gaining ground in the world economy, it is no surprise that its higher education institutions are becoming more competitive in the global market and are well positioned for the race.

Given the vast resources, flexibility and environment required to build world-class research-intensive universities, developing countries should consider creating “beacon universities” to serve as a guide and inspiration for other universities and to improve sector-wide quality and relevance at national and regional levels.

Beacon universities would serve as models for increased efficiency, productivity and quality in knowledge production, dissemination and application. They can become pilot cases and exemplars of excellence that provide direction and impetus to improve the quality and relevance of other universities within their national and regional borders. So beacon universities have the benefit not only of positioning key institutions in the race for world-class status, but also of contributing to the improvement of higher education systems in ­general.

Many Asian countries have selected a number of key universities and designated them as research universities that are ­explicitly, or sometimes implicitly, mandated to reach world-class ­status – these become “beacon ­universities”. These selected flagship research universities are supported by their national governments with increased ­financial resources and enhanced institutional autonomy, including over curriculum and ­programme design, international faculty and student recruitment and international research ­collaboration.

Beacon universities in the region include China’s C9 – its version of the US’ Ivy League; Thailand’s nine national research universities; Malaysia’s Accelerated Programme for Excellence (Apex) university – Universiti Sains Malaysia – and its five key research universities; Singapore’s National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University; and Vietnam’s two national universities and three regional universities. These universities are granted increased funding, autonomy and are positioned by their respective territories for the race for world-class status.

Among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), members of the ASEAN University Network can be seen as de facto beacon universities, given the restrictions placed on member numbers and the stringent criteria for membership.

But there are stark contrasts in the performance of universities between different ASEAN nations.

Across the ASEAN region, only three universities are ranked in the THE World University Rankings 2014-2015 top 400 and only four make the THE Asia University Rankings 2014 top 100 list. They are all from either Singapore or Thailand, both founding ASEAN member countries. But another founding country, Malaysia, is showing promise.

Singapore and Malaysia’s higher education sectors, led by their beacon universities, have been receiving substantial financial support and have been granted increased institutional autonomy within their respective initiatives to become global and regional higher education hubs. But less impressive socio-economic development and limited funding capacity is holding back other ASEAN University flagships. Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam remain absent from the rankings.

But Singapore and Malaysia provide a case study: broad higher education initiatives to create an environment of increased internationalisation, improved quality and increased programme relevance, and increased research capacity, have helped the beacon universities rise in the rankings.

The creation of beacon universities provides a strong countrywide imperative to establish world-class universities, and to raise standards across the region.

Roger Chao, Jr
Higher education expert and formerly the higher education specialist at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in Burma


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