Ever since the “world-class” university paradigm was established fifteen years ago, the concept has faced a backlash. The concept was too focused on research production, people said, it was uni-dimensional, it took no account of universities’ other missions, etc. etc. Basically the argument was that if people took the world class university concept seriously, we would have a university monoculture that ignored many important facets of higher education.
The latest iteration of this backlash comes in the form of the idea of “flagship universities”, promoted in the main by John Aubrey Douglass, a higher education expert at UC Berkeley. Douglass’ idea, which he outlines in a recent book, is essentially that what the world needs is not more “world-class” universities – which he dismisses as being overly focused on the production of research – but more “flagship” universities. What’s the difference? Well, “flagship” universities are – essentially - world class universities with a commitment to teaching top undergraduate students, to providing top-level professional education and to a mission of civic engagement, outreach and economic development. Basically, all flagship universities are world-class universities, but not vice-versa. They are world-class universities with a heart, essentially.
Or, that’s what promoters of a “flagship concept” would have you believe. I would argue the concept is simply one of American academic colonialism, driven by a simplistic belief that all systems would be better if only they all had their own Morril Acts, Wisconsin Ideas, and California Master Plans.
If you read Douglass’ book on the matter, it’s quite plain that when he says “flagship university” he means roughly the top 20 or so US public universities – Cal, Washington, Virginia, Michigan, etc. And those are without question great universities and for the most part appropriate to the settings in which they exist. But as a guiding concept for universities around the world, it’s at least as inappropriate as “world class” universities if not more because it assumes that these quintessentially American models will or should work more or less anywhere.
Start with the idea that to be a flagship university you have to have excellent research output. That takes out Africa, India, the Middle East, nearly all of South-East Asia, and and Latin America, just as the “world class” concept does. Then you must have a research culture with full academic freedom, freedom of expression, etc (say goodbye to China and the rest of Russia). You must also have a commitment to combine undergraduate and professional education and to a highly selective intake process for both (Adieu France, Auf Wiedersehen, Germany), and a commitment to community outreach in the way Americans think of it (Sayonara Japan, Annyeong Korea).
What’s left? Universities in anglophone countries, basically. Plus Scandinavia and the Netherlands. That’s it. But if you then add in the requirement that flagships are supposed to be at the top of an explicit system of higher education institutions (a la California Master Plan), then to some degree you lose everyone except maybe Norway.
Douglass is undoubtedly right in saying the world-class universities are - in practice if not in theory – a pretty reductive view of higher education (though in defence of the group in Shanghai who came with the concept, it’s fair to say they thought of it as a benchmarking tool not a policy imperative). But while the flagship concept cannot be called reductive, even more so than the “world-class concept” it is culturally specific and not readily exportable outside of its home context.
Universities around the world are descended from different traditions. The governments that pay for them and regulate them have legitimately different conceptions of what they are supposed to achieve and how they are supposed to achieve it. People happen to have got worked up about “world-class” research universities because research happens to be the only part of university outputs that can be measured with in a way which is half-way useful, quantitatively speaking. The problem lies not with the measurement of research outputs, and not even with the notion of institutions competing with one another, but rather with the notion that there is a single standard for excellence.
The flagship universities vs. world-class universities debate, at heart, is simply an argument about which single standard to use. Those of us in North America might prefer the flagship model because it speaks to our historic experience and prejudices. But that’s no reason to think anyone should adopt it, too.