The Ups and Downs of Building and Sustaining World Class Universities

There are some who insist that the university is constantly in a state of crisis, aggravated perhaps by political crisis.  I do not agree. 

February 8, 2016

This blog is based on a conversation with Almantas Samalavicius for Lithuania's leading cultural journal Kulturos barai. It also appears in Lithuanian. I am indebted to Almantas for his insightful questions

Although German universities provided the model of a research university throughout the nineteenth century the US produced the most advanced research university model for the 20th century. Additionally, the Americans “invented” what Clark Kerr referred to as the 20th century “multiversity” in his 1963 classic, The Uses of the University, that combined research, teaching, and service to society in one institution. Other American innovations—shared governance between the faculty and administration, a strong president system, a commitment to academic freedom, and organizing the university around democratic departments rather than the hierarchical “chair” system. These characteristics contributed to the success of the American research university. However, the American system faces serious challenges. The most important of these is the deterioration of financial support by the governments of most of the 50 US states, creating serious problems for public universities. America’s top private universities—Harvard, Stanford, and others—continue to do very well. So long as the American research universities, public and private, are adequately supported and maintain their basic organizational strengths, they will continue to lead. They may drop places in the international rankings to successful universities in other countries, but that is not important since there is room for many top research universities in a global context. For the research universities, continued creativity and commitment to the core values are what is needed.

There are some who insist that the university is constantly in a state of crisis, aggravated perhaps by political crisis.  I do not agree. Of course, as a central part of modern society, universities are affected by societal trends, and sometimes placed in crisis by these trends. Sometimes, as in the case of Nazi Germany, a highly successful university system is basically destroyed. While it has taken the German universities almost a half-century to rebuild, they are today rather successful institutions.  The current efforts in many European countries to build world-class research universities through excellence initiatives and other programs, in part to compete with the US for talent, is by and large positive and has shown good success. How European universities will cope with the refugee crisis, the rise of populist rightist political trends, debates about funding, and other challenges remains unclear.

Universities in the BRIC countries have their own challenges.  I don’t share the view of other observers of higher education that the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) will emerge to dominate global higher education in the coming half-century or even more. China especially has made impressive progress in developing effective research universities by investing billions in the top 100 universities, but China faces significant challenges, such as over-bureaucratization, political interference, the lack of a truly meritocratic academic culture, and obstacles that will make their academic rise difficult.  China may reach a kind of “glass ceiling” although a dozen or more Chinese universities have emerged as serious research universities, with impressive improvements in their publications. Neither India nor Brazil has a national vision for creating top universities (although one Brazilian state, Sao Paulo, has done a very good job). In this group, Russia is underestimated as it has interesting potential due to the large number of well-educated specialists and a strong academic tradition. Yet Russia suffers from consistent underinvestment in higher education along with problematical bureaucracy and continuing politicization of the education system.  No other country in the former Soviet Bloc stands out as a higher education reform success. It is interesting that the Russians, through the Commission on the Competitiveness of Russian Universities (the 5-100 Commission) is investing heavily in 21 of the top Russian universities to assist them to improve their research profiles, change patterns of governance, and engage in other reforms.

International attention tends to focus on research universities and their output, but returning to the US, an important participant in the higher education system is the private liberal arts college. There is a belief among many upper middle class Americans that a liberal arts education is valuable preparation for employment in the long run. Recent research shows that a good liberal arts education has proved to provide significant success in the job market. They are, in general, most attractive to the upper middle class, but virtually all of the American research universities have some commitment to the liberal arts and general education at the undergraduate level—thus, a large percentage of American students receive some aspects of a liberal arts education.

The two main challenges for this century are massification and the demands of the global knowledge economy.  The developed world has, in general, achieved mass higher education. This challenge remains for almost all developing countries and many middle-income countries. China and India still require significant expansion in the coming decades.  The global knowledge economy demands top-level research universities not only to educate young people for participation in this new economy, but also to play a key role in knowledge transfer. A private sector has expanded rapidly in response to the demand resulting from massification. Many of these institutions are for-profit; insuring good quality and a contribution to the larger public interest will continue to be a significant challenge.



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