How to build an elite research university

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10 oktober 2011 | The World Bank published a guideline on how to build elite research universities. Three things would be needed: “a high concentration of talented academics and students, significant budgets, and strategic vision and leadership”, according to the report.

Philip G. Altbach (Professor at Boston College) and Dr.Jamil Salmi (Higher Education Coordinator at the World Bank)co-authored the book “The Road to Academic Excellence: TheMaking of World-Class Research Universities”. In it, they warnlow-income countries to solely focus on building elite researchinstitutes without fostering higher education in general.

“It must be a long-term strategic decision that aspiringcountries take, weighing all the facts, while banishing any notionof fast results,” comments Salmi. Three things would have to cometogether: “talented academics and students, significant budgets,and strategic vision and leadership”.

World Bank press statement

In a global economy that depends on sophisticated innovation andknowledge to drive growth and wealth, a new World Bank report onhigher education suggests that low- and middle-income countriesshould resist the temptation to establish world-classuniversities to cash in on research earnings and court globalprestige before educating their own citizens to high tertiarystandards.

According to the new report, The Road to Academic Excellence:The Making of World-Class Research Universities, which charts theexperience of 11 leading public and private research universitiesin nine countries from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and EasternEurope, elite research universities are outpacing the smartestcompanies in the world with their original research. In one recentglobal study on new patents, for example, leading universities andresearch institutions are driving more scientific strides inbiotechnology than private companies and firms.

“Looking at the elite research and grant money cascading out ofworld-class universities, as well as their new thinking in thehumanities and social sciences, you can certainly understand whycountries might think that a top-flight research institution is allthat stands in their way of reducing poverty, leaping forward intheir national development, and establishing new footholds in theglobal knowledge economy,” says Dr. Jamil Salmi, the Bank’s HigherEducation Coordinator, and a co-author of the new report. “But thisdecision cannot be simply tactical. It must be a long-termstrategic decision that aspiring countries take, weighing all thefacts, while banishing any notion of fast results.”

The new report concludes that top-performers in the researchuniversity world share three common characteristics, without which21st Century universities cannot survive, let alone, excel:a high concentration of talented academics andstudents, significantbudgets, and strategic vision andleadership.

In most cases, world-class universities have students andfaculty who are not exclusively from the country where theuniversity operates. This enables them to attract the most talentedpeople, no matter where they come from, and open themselves to newideas and approaches. Unquestionably, the world’s best universitiesenroll and employ large numbers of foreign students andfaculty in their search for the most talented. Inthis respect, the fact that world-class universities succeed inmobilizing a broadly diverse national and international academicstaff is likely to maximize these research institutions’knowledge-networking capacity.

It Costs Millions

Another conclusion from the new Bank study is that building andoperating world-class universities can cost millions of dollars.For example, the authors show that in late 2007, Saudi Arabiaannounced plans for a new $10 billion graduate research university;Pakistan plans to spend $750 million for each of its newuniversities of engineering, science, and technology during thenext few years; and the school of medicine established by CornellUniversity in Qatar in 2002 cost $750 million. The availability ofabundant money and international prestige creates a virtuous circlethat allows elite universities to attract more top professors andresearchers, as is often the case for leading U.S. colleges.

Recent years of global economic crisis, though, havesignificantly affected research universities, potentially boostingEast Asia’s universities. East Asian countries have weathered theeconomic storm better than their Western counterparts, as they seekto join the top ranks of the global research elite. For example,India has increased its higher education investment by 31 percentsince 2010, and China has continued to fund its excellence programsin support of the nation’s leading universities.

Vision and Leadership Matter

Although unlimited money and attracting the world’s best andbrightest students and teachers helps strengthen a country’s bid tocreate a world-class university, strategic vision and leadershipare also vital, without which national aspiration to a world-classuniversity ranking falls short.

According to the new report, world class universities thrive inenvironments that foster competitiveness, unrestrained scientificinquiry and academic freedom, critical thinking, innovation, andcreativity. Moreover, institutions that have complete autonomy arealso more flexible because they are not bound by cumbersomebureaucracies and externally imposed standards, even in light ofthe legitimate rules and statutes that bind them. As a result, theycan manage their resources with agility and quickly respond to thedemands of a rapidly changing global market.

“To make the grade, you also need inspiring and persistentleaders, a strong strategic vision of where the institution isgoing, a philosophy of success and excellence, and a culture ofconstant reflection, organizational learning, and change. On top ofthat, you can’t be impatient, either,” says Professor Philip G.Altbach, Director of the Center for International Higher Educationat Boston College, and a co-author of the new Bank report.

The report says that not every country needscomprehensive world-class universities, at leastnot while more fundamental tertiary education needs arenot being met. Many countries, it adds, would bebetter off initially focusing on developing the best nationaluniversities possible. For example, higher-level researchinstitutions in Sub-Saharan Africa that are equipped to providequality education and conduct relevant applied research can play akey role in training skilled workers to be fluent in the latesttechnologies and apply them in industries to make a broader rangeof products that win customers worldwide.

“Good-quality tertiary education is also key to stimulatinginnovation, from producing new varieties of crops and sources ofenergy that can speed progress toward reducing poverty, achievingfood security, fighting disease, improving health, and creating newjobs,” says Ghana’s Education Minister, the Honorable  BettyMould-Iddrisu.

In the foreword to the new report, India’s Minister of HumanResource Development, Dr. Kapil Sibal, writes that the ultimatetest of modern research universities is whether they can beflexible enough to encourage learning across disciplines and toharmonize education with the needs of society. Innovation, hewrites, is seen as the mantra for development, “a realization sopervasive that nations are scrambling to create institutions andorganizations that would facilitate the process of knowledgecreation.”

“The world today is ripe for another tectonic shift in ourunderstanding of the university as an institution. India can emergeas a knowledge power only if an appropriate architecture for highereducation is put in place. Indian youth have demonstrated theirinventiveness and energy in the past. Higher education thatchannels this capacity for innovation will unleash the latentpotential of India’s demographic dividend.”

The World Bank and Education

By investing in people, the World Bank believes that educationis a powerful driver of human development and economic growth, andis also one of the strongest instruments for reducing poverty. TheBank manages a portfolio of $11.2 billion with operations in 82countries, and invested more than $1.8 billion in education in2011. During the last ten years, education financing by theInternational Development Association, the Bank’s zero-interestfund for the poorest countries, has helped recruit or train 3million additional teachers and build more than 2 million newclassrooms, benefiting more than 100 million children everyyear.


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