Country after country announces national policy to pick leading research universities, lavish resources upon them, and thrust them higher into international leadership. China, Germany, and Japan are three of the powerhouse examples, even though their higher education system otherwise differ greatly.
The rationales for the high-profile national policy are multiple. Underlying all is the conviction that as the world moves further into the Knowledge Economy top research and advanced education is inescapably key to national economic competitiveness and international political leadership. With this conviction goes recognition that such pursuits are massively expensive and the assumption that the goals and benefits are largely public in nature. For most people, this course means that public policy based centrally on public funding is essential.
However, the realities of cost require that resources can be lavished only upon a targeted few. Heavy funding cannot be provided to entire systems. Government must choose its best horses. These are usually institutions already established as the country’s leaders in research and graduate education—the highest ranked universities. Alternatively, as in Malaysia, governments may choose a well-ranked university below the top but with perceived superior potential. What’s occurring is akin to national industrial policies, heavily government centered.
The entire rationale for the selectivity is a stark repudiation of the “Continental Model.” That model emphasized standardization of HE systems, equality of institutions’ quality and status, and equity in resource distribution. Of course practice did not match principle but the general orientation or claim was clear. Stratification was a dirty word. It was something that occurred as things got out of control. It was not to be a pursuit of national government policy.
Some of the arguments against picking national winners are therefore predictable in systems with traditional anti-stratification norms; the new policy is called “unfair”. The “losers” (of course) complain most loudly. Selection criteria are deemed inappropriate—or misapplied. External capacity to measure performance and value is doubted. Whereas proponents of the national policy claim that objectivity and expertise are the driving forces, critics see subjectivity and politics as more influential. In actual policy reform, proponents are prevailing over critics in much of the world.
But the US marches to a different drummer. Or multiplicity of drummers. As so often happens in HE policy, the US is very unusual, in some respects unique. There is no national policy to select winners and leaders or to lavish national funds on them. Why?
First is the weight of norms, traditions, and structures—both within and beyond HE—that point away from any single overarching and government-centered national policy. Even the growing influence of the national government in reforms for primary and secondary education does not constitute such central national policy. Yet those reforms go beyond what we see in HE reform. “Best practice,” national curriculum, and the like constitute the rhetoric for lower levels of education. In fact, unlike the disparaging view of these lower levels, the prevailing view of HE in the US is that it is the jewel of the education system. Well, not quite, but the tarnished reality in US HE applies only to undergraduate education; research while graduate education continues to be perceived as the global leader—an impression only reinforced by the zeal of other countries to implement major reforms to boost a stratified system so as to compete with the US in a more U.S.-like way.
If our US research and graduate education is so enviable, why even ponder radical change? It’s not that the US already has successful centralized national policy. On the contrary, the (at least) implicit presumption is that it has long operated on alternatives to such an approach. What other countries are pursuing with their current national strategies emulates the US only in that they involve stark stratification, a powerful concentration of resources in elite institutions. But their pursuits are drastically different from US pursuits in being nationally and government centered and part of an overarching policy.
The US dynamics for leadership in research and graduate education are much more pluralistic and competitive. The 50 state governments play major roles as do corporations, foundations and individual philanthropists. Of course, the national government has played a huge role for more than half a century, but it doesn’t play that role by constructing a central national policy and choosing the national leaders. It does not even distribute funds primarily to institutions but instead to research projects and researchers based on the evaluated worth of individual proposals. Indirectly this does indeed favor the top over the middle of the system but the top has emerged and nourished itself by competing in the marketplace for top professors and graduate students, as well as for ample private funding.
Additionally, a unique private-public configuration would militate against a US policy of picking the winners. Only in the US is the top of the HE system dominated by private universities. Apart from a handful of mixed cases, the research and graduate student “top” in other countries (including China, Germany, and Japan) is decisively and overwhelmingly public. In selecting winners, most governments are targeting public funds to public institutions. The politics of lavishing public funds on private institutions would be problematic, even in the US as it emphatically is for the rest of the world.
There’s no overarching national policy for picking leading universities in research and graduate education in the country universally regarded as number 1 in research and graduate education.