In the past decade, the term “world-class university” has become a catchphrase to describe research universities at the pinnacle of the tertiary education hierarchy, as measured by various international rankings.
Around the world, governments have responded to this global reputational competition with additional funding to promote their national elite universities, as illustrated by the various “Excellence Initiatives” in countries as varied as China, Denmark, Germany, Nigeria, Russia, South Korea, Spain and Taiwan.
In some cases, the government has also encouraged its top universities to merge so as to achieve economies of scale, and reach a better position to compete globally. A few countries have even decided to establish new universities from scratch, with the explicit purpose of creating world-class institutions.
Achieving the ambitious result of launching a high-quality new university is easier said than done, however, as building a world-class institution requires more than knee-jerk reactions to rankings or the massive infusion of government money.
It is a complex and lengthy process that has only recently begun to receive careful attention. The following examples outline the most common pitfalls that have been encountered by some recent projects aimed at establishing a new flagship institution.
Build a magnificent campus; expect magic to happen
The physical infrastructure is obviously the most visible part of a new university. A lot of care is typically given to the design and construction of impressive, state-of-the-art facilities, and rightly so. Good academic infrastructure is an important part of the education experience of students, and researchers need adequate laboratories to carry out leading-edge scientific enquiries. But without an appropriate governance set-up, a strong leadership team, a well-thought-out curriculum and highly qualified academics, the beautiful campus will remain little more than an empty shell and a waste of valuable resources.
Design the curriculum after constructing the facilities
It is often wrongly assumed that it is easy to tailor educational programmes to the physical environment of the institution. This may be true for traditional lecture-based teaching, but innovative pedagogical practices often require equally innovative facilities. The founders of a new university should refrain from launching into the architectural design stage of their institution until they have established a clear definition of the vision and mission of the institution and determined some of the specific content of teaching and research. Academic staff should be given the opportunity to influence the design of the pedagogical and research spaces.
Import all the content from somewhere else
The teams in charge of establishing new universities tend to look almost exclusively at the top-ranked institutions in industrial countries to buy or copy elements of their curriculum instead of custom-designing their own programmes. While this may seem expedient, it is not the most effective way of building the academic culture of a new university that aims to reach high standards. The Harvards and Oxfords of this world are unique institutions that have evolved over centuries, and it is unrealistic to think that reproducing their distinctive academic model is possible or even desirable. And it is impractical to bring curricular fragments from a variety of top-notch institutions across different countries, and unwise to assume that these disparate elements can easily gel to create an authentic learning and research culture in the new university. Curriculum development is demanding work, but it is the main mechanism that allows a unique and innovative organisational culture to emerge.
Design with an OECD ecosystem in mind, but implement in a challenging environment
Replicating the three key features that make flagship universities in industrial countries successful – concentration of talent, abundant resources and favourable governance – is a fundamental requirement, but it does not encompass the full complement of operational conditions that underpin the authorising environment of a successful world-class institution. It is difficult, if not impossible, to create and maintain thriving universities when the tertiary education ecosystem within which they operate is not fully supportive. Some potentially important dimensions of a favourable ecosystem include leadership at the national level; a regulatory framework; a quality assurance framework; mechanisms and pathways integrating the various types of tertiary education institutions; and financial resources and incentives, along with digital and telecommunications infrastructure. To operate adequately, all of these require an overarching set of conditions which have to do with political and economic stability, the rule of law, the existence of basic freedoms, and favourable economic, social and cultural life. The absence of even one of these elements or the lack of alignment among these dimensions is likely to compromise the ability of new universities to progress and endure.
Delay putting in place the governing board and appointing the leadership team
The resolution to establish a new university is often a political decision reflecting a visionary ambition at the highest levels and one that a ministry or a technical project team is then charged with putting into action. This typically leads to a centrally managed design and implementation process. A project of such magnitude must be fully owned and carried out by a dynamic leadership team, working under the authority of an independent board with the capacity to offer guidance and empowerment. The first task of the new board has to be the selection and installation of institutional leadership.
Stack the board with political appointees
Founders need to choose a governing board that brings together a range of essential expertise that can evolve over time. The governing board should start out small and grow very gradually to accommodate more expertise as needed. A common error is appointing people to boards on the assumption that they “represent” their institution or represent a constituency, when really they should represent an area of expertise needed in the management of the new and growing institution (legal expert, financial expert, infrastructure expert, academic expert). A related misstep is to appoint governing board members who have too little time. It is better to have the board skewed towards recently retired university presidents or experts than to have too many members with insufficient time and dedication to the endeavour.
Plan for up-front capital costs, but pay little attention to long-term financial sustainability
The promoters of a new university usually announce with enthusiasm the huge endowment dedicated to the establishment of the new institution, but the initial capital investment is only one part of the total project. It is essential to provide adequately for the first few years of operation and to establish a thoughtful business model that allows the new institution to grow and endure in a financially sustainable manner.
Engage in mergers for the wrong reasons
Mergers are risky undertakings. First, the new, consolidated institution can be dysfunctional because of clashing institutional cultures. Second, the merged institution may become too large to be managed effectively. Mergers make sense only if the strengths of the institutions complement each other, thereby making it easy to build critical mass and achieve significant synergies. In fact, the more successful mergers appear to be those that resemble acquisitions rather than mergers per se. This happens when one institution takes the initiative to absorb an outside school or department that can usefully complement its own offerings and boost its strengths.
Be too ambitious in the quantitative growth targets
The leaders of new institutions sometimes think they can rapidly enrol large numbers of students, often in the tens of thousands. This is rarely achieved without sacrificing quality. It is usually a better idea to begin with few programmes and a small student body. It allows the new institution to deploy resources more prudently, take adequate time to develop a nurturing academic culture and give precedence to quality considerations. Once a strong academic culture is in place, it is easier to scale up.
Think that everything can be accomplished in 18 months
A variant of overly ambitious planning is assuming that a new institution can be launched in months and that high-quality teaching and research can be accomplished within a few years. In reality, rushing through the initial phase of design and implementation can lead to hasty decisions that have an adverse effect on the quality and cost of the project. Taking the long view is especially important when it comes to developing the robust scientific capacity and critical mass needed to produce leading-edge research and innovative technological applications.
Rely exclusively on foreign academics without building local capacity
Hiring foreign academics is common practice in seeking to accelerate the launch of a new university in a country with limited capacity. Indeed, it makes good sense to have experienced instructors and researchers to help put new programmes in place. But it can be a risky and counterproductive approach in the absence of systematic efforts to attract and retain qualified national academics. It can even lead to fraudulent practices when the young university contracts eminent researchers whose main contribution is to lend their signature and publish in the name of the new university. As with most plans that include reliance on outside actors, the strategy of bringing in foreign academic staff should fundamentally serve the aim of grooming national academics and building local research capacity.
Neglect to integrate your foreign students
Bringing in many foreign students can be counterproductive if the university does not have in place a proper system to ensure their smooth integration. If foreign students’ experience is unhappy, it can negatively affect the international reputation of the institution, and even damage the image of the entire country. A constructive way of dealing with this issue is to use the presence of foreign students as a vehicle for internationalising the curriculum in terms of both programme content and pedagogical practices.
Focus on the global research scene at the expense of the local environment
Developing a strong research community is one of the most challenging elements in any attempt to build a world-class university from scratch. This is often achieved by bringing eminent researchers from the diaspora back home and/or attracting top foreign academics who are well connected and successfully engage in leading-edge collaborative research across frontiers. This is a reasonable strategy provided it does not come at the cost of conducting locally relevant research and forming strong links with local economic actors. The absence of a well-developed local innovation system is often a major obstacle but it should not deter the new university from seeking the right balance between global reach and local engagement.
Be obsessed with rankings
Too often politicians and university leaders mistake the measuring instrument for the goal. While the rankings can be useful tools for benchmarking the global position of universities, rising in the rankings should not be the priority in itself. Institutions that work relentlessly at increasing the quality of teaching and learning and improving their research output will automatically do better in the rankings without needing to fixate on them.
Jamil Salmi is a global tertiary education expert, emeritus professor of higher education at Diego Portales University and author of the book The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities.