'World Class Worldwide'

Higher education is increasingly international, especially at research universities. But the meaning of research university and of being a "world class" institution isn't the same all over the world. With that in mind, Philip G. Altbach and Jorge Balán organized a conference on institutions in Asia and Latin America.

July 13, 2007

Higher education is increasingly international, especially at research universities. But the meaning of research university and of being a "world class" institution isn't the same all over the world. With that in mind, Philip G. Altbach and Jorge Balán organized a conference on institutions in Asia and Latin America. The experts who attended then produced case studies on universities and those studies have now been revised and assembled in World Class Worldwide: Transforming Research Universities in Asia and Latin America, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press. The collection was edited by Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education, at Boston College; and Balán, visiting professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto. Altbach and Balán recently responded to questions about the themes of the new book.

Q: Many American politicians and academics spend a lot of time now focused on universities in India and China, but one hears little about Latin American universities. Why did you decide to include both Asia and Latin America together? What commonalities do you see in the regions?

A: We chose Asia and Latin American in part to provide some interesting contrasts in approaches to the research university. These two regions have quite different historical traditions and current policy directions. China and India are huge, with a longstanding presence in the United States and elsewhere as importers of graduate education, science, and technology. Now they are producing their own scientists and academics, competing (and collaborating on a more equal footing) with the more advanced countries where they used to send their best students for doctoral training. We found the contrast between Asia and Latin America illuminating: Asian political and academic leaders have wholeheartedly embraced the dominant Anglo-Saxon academic models and the will to compete globally, including notions of institutional differentiation, diversification of funding sources, reliance on tuition and fees, academic markets, and the pervading use of English as lingua franca. Their Latin American counterparts are more reticent -- fearing even greater influence from their neighbor to the north, and showing some ambivalence about such trends as ever higher fees for students, and the like. Both regions have yet to cope with mass and rapidly growing student enrollments and the recent democratization of college attendance, a largely new and rapidly changing professoriate, weak institutional frameworks to regulate complex systems and lack of consensus over basic academic values, and the need to respond to too many and conflicting demands. In terms of the development of research universities, both regions show somewhat different approaches.

Q: The universities in both regions generally appear more oriented toward science, technology, and pre-professional education than the great research universities in the U.S. and Europe, which also have great strength in the humanities and liberal arts. Do you think this distinction will change?

A: Perhaps the most striking contrast is with the Anglo-Saxon model where the undergraduate liberal education plays such a predominant role, while it is the exception rather than the rule in Asia and Latin America. It would be unfair to say that the universities of Beijing or Sao Paulo, for instance, have not embraced the humanities. Quite on the contrary, these and other universities in Asia and Latin America are justifiably proud of their achievements in these field -- however, with a strong focus on work within their own cultural traditions, perhaps not so well appreciated in the global markets of ideas and values as their counterparts in the U.S. or the U.K. Institutions find themselves under strong pressures to fulfill national (as contrasted to global) demands for outstanding work in the humanities and the social sciences that seldom achieves the same degree of international recognition than the equivalent work in the hard sciences and engineering.

Q: Much of the discussion of Asian universities has focused on whether they are "catching up" to or overtaking the U.S. in degree production. In light of differences noted in this study, is degree production a good way to compare American universities and those in Asia? Are there better measures?

A: Asian universities are already producing graduates in large numbers -- and in countries like China, India, Korea Japan and a few others, degree production is impressive. In some S and T fields, they are quite competitive with the United States. Indeed, some argue that too many graduates are being produced. The problem is less numbers than quality. Except for a few of the top Asian universities, the quality of graduates does not compare favorably to the top tier or even average American universities. What is important for Asia to focus on is the quality of its graduates. Indian employers, for example, say that the average graduates from Indian universities have neither the skills nor the habits of inquiry needed for most of the jobs available in India’s booming economy. The situation is not as bad in China, but the variation in quality between the very small numbers of universities at the top of the hierarchy and the rest is very great throughout Asia.

A small number Asian universities are catching up to American research universities in terms of quality. They are far from overtaking the best universities in the United States or the UK, but some are getting better fast. “World class” is very much in the minds of Asian university leaders and of some governments as well. The top national and a few private universities in Japan have for decades been internationally competitive, and recent reforms promise to make them even better -- the results are not in yet. China has invested heavily to ensure that its top universities can compete globally. In major cities, universities have been merged to create economies of scale and centers of excellence, and the central government and some of the provinces and cities have spent heavily. Korea, Singapore. and Taiwan have also invested in their top universities. Only India lags behind. It is unlikely that these Asian top tier universities will overtake the best American institutions, but they will offer alternatives for study for the brightest graduates -- who now often come to the U.S. or Europe to study, and often to stay.

Q: Looking at the examples of the universities studied in this volume, what relationship do you see between political freedoms and the development of great universities?

A: This is a complex question. It seems possible to have excellent universities without broad political freedoms -- the former Soviet Union had some top quality universities, particularly in the sciences, without political freedom or even much academic freedom -- although political freedom certainly helps. Stability is important too. Most of Asia does have a reasonable amount of political freedom. China and Vietnam are the main exceptions. What is more important are the conditions for building a productive academic culture, and in Asia this is even more problematical. For example, an academic culture of meritocracy through the university -- from admissions to hiring and promotion of academic staff awarding of research funds -- is mandatory, and in many Asian universities this remains problematical. Corruption is evident in some places, and personal connections in others. Academic freedom is spotty in some places -- clearly this is the case in China. In Singapore, where the academic system is otherwise quite admirable, there are some politically sensitive areas where research and publication may not be completely free.

Q: Americans are used to paying attention to developments at Oxford and Cambridge and more recently at IIT. Are there a few research universities in developing nations that deserve close attention?

A: Americans should carefully watch developments among the top universities in Asia. In Japan, the University of Tokyo, the University of Kyoto, and Waseta University are “world class” -- along with some others. Seoul National University in Korea, and several universities in Taiwan are also excellent. A half dozen top Chinese universities are moving ahead rapidly, including Peking University, Tsinghua University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Fudan University, and a few others. The University of Hong Kong, the National University of Singapore, are the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok are also very good. Curiously enough, although the Indian Institutes of Technology produce outstanding graduates, they are not research universities -- they are small, high specialized, and do not have appropriate infrastructures. There in no Indian universities that rank along the institutions mentioned here. Thus, the United States and Europe should look at what is happening in Asia.


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