'World-Class' vs. Mass Education

International education experts debate whether developing countries should focus their time and money on colleges and universities that educate the elite or the masses.

March 9, 2012

Should developing nations expend their money and energy trying to build "world-class" universities that conduct job-creating research and educate the nation's elite, or focus on building more and better institutions to train the masses?

That question -- which echoes debates within many American states about relative funding for flagship research universities vs. community colleges and regional institutions -- drew barely a mention in the summary statement that emerged from an unusual symposium at the University of Oxford's Green Templeton College in January (though it was addressed a bit more directly in a set of recommendations released last month).

But the issue of whether developing nations should emphasize excellence or access as they build and strengthen their higher education systems undergirded much of the discussion of the three-day event, flaring at times into sharp disagreement among the attendees over "the extent to which the emerging world should be part of the educational arms race," says Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne.

Different observers would define that race differently, and with varying degrees of sympathy and scorn. But in general, most experts on higher education would equate it with the push to have institutions in the top of worldwide rankings (or "league tables," as they're called in much of the world) -- rankings dominated by criteria such as research funding and student selectivity as opposed to measures that emphasize democratic student access. 

Those rankings have historically been dominated by American and European institutions, but many countries in Asia and other parts of the world have focused their energy (and resources) on building "world-class" institutions that are capable of elbowing their way into the ever-growing number of international rankings such as Times Higher Education's World University Rankings and Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities. The institutions do so both to build their internal research and leadership capacities and to carve out a niche on the world stage.

But doing so often takes enormous resources, given the large expense required to engage in high-quality academic research (particularly in the sciences), and can raise questions about relative priorities given the perceived need in virtually every country to produce more and better-educated rank and file citizenries to feed economic growth.

The meeting, which featured current and former government officials, university leaders, academics and other experts from developed and developing countries, took as its starting point the idea that "economic growth and social development crucially depend on increasing supplies of trained and educated" entrepreneurs, workers and citizens, and that higher education is key to doing that. But given the great variation in the situations and challenges of individual countries, says Ian Scott, the symposium's executive director, the group aimed less to develop common, "prescriptive" recommendations than to suggest a general set of strategic objectives that might apply across them.

The question of how much attention developing nations should pay to building elite institutions rather than those that serve the masses was raised most directly in comments by Jo Ritzen, president emeritus of the Netherlands' Maastricht University and now a professorial fellow at the university's Graduate School of Governance. Ritzen, the former Dutch minister of education, argued that the symposium should encourage every developing country to develop at least one major university -- "centers of excellence" -- to ensure that they are positioned to produce as well as distribute knowledge, and to play on a world stage.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Ritzen said he was not framing developing nations' pursuit of world class universities as an either-or proposition. "Mass higher education is necessary for a country to belong to the league of developed countries," he said. "At the same time, it's very important to make sure that you are also going to be part of the world elite.... There doesn't have to be a conflict. The Chinese do exactly this. There is no question about the broadening of access in China, but also no question about the fact that some Chinese universities are elite."

But Ritzen's comments at the symposium drew significant pushback from many of the policy makers and other experts in attendance, said David W. Breneman, the Newton and Rita Meyers Professor in Economics of Education at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, who was among them. They argued, broadly, that "there is enough pressure on these countries to do this anyway," Breneman said, and that "this is not the direction they should be working in."

Chief among those taking this position was David Watson, a professor of higher education and principal (president) of Green Templeton College. He argued that "politicians and institutions ... are obsessed with a poorly designed concept of comparative 'world-classness,' " and that they should be focusing instead on "geographically specific 'engagement,' " Watson said in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. "What governments say they want from higher education systems represent almost the opposite of what the international league tables they also exhort us to climb actually measure": research over teaching quality, graduate education over undergraduate and skills training, an international focus over service to business and the community, etc.

Breneman said he was struck by how the conversation mirrored issues that he and his co-authors examined in their new book, Financing American Higher Education in the Era of Globalization (Harvard Education Press), in which many U.S. states (and leaders of public universities) have focused their limited funds on building elite research universities rather than on "the core, workhorse institutions that they tend to neglect" -- community colleges, regional public universities, and for-profit institutions.

Marginson, the University of Melbourne scholar, framed the discussion a little differently. In an interview, he described the view that developing nations should focus exclusively on mass higher education as a self-interested (and perhaps condescending) view on the part of the traditional academic powers in the Western world -- that "they should take their science from us and focus on becoming literate -- eventually they'll be ready for something better," he said. 

Marginson said that a tradeoff undoubtedly exists in building a tertiary system that can adequately educate a country's masses and at the same time train its elite and get it onto the global map in research -- and that the tradeoff is all the more acute in times of limited economic growth. So while China (like some other Asian nations) has been able to do it, as Ritzen noted, many other countries cannot compete with Western nations for the top professors and research infrastructure needed to build "world-class" institutions.

But from a rhetorical standpoint, he argued, it would be as much a mistake to discourage developing nations from "pushing into the main international game" as it would be to urge them to go all in on world-class education.

And while the findings and recommendations that emerged from the symposium paid short shrift to the relative balance of world class vs. mass education -- focusing more fundamentally on the need for more and better education as a driver of economic and social development -- the document did include one finding that sought to strike a balance between the two poles. Titled "The search for prestige can detract from mainstream needs," it reads:

Some emerging markets (like some high income countries) place undue emphasis on elite institutions. Flagship institutions and centres of excellence in tertiary education play legitimate roles as centres of advanced research, as aspirational beacons and as benchmarks. They provide indispensable connections to global science and the innovation economy. They augment national culture and are crucial to building advanced capacity in governance, regulation and policy. Emerging markets should devote some scarce resources to their development. But policies, practices and priorities for tertiary education should balance the development of elite institutions with the improvement of mainstream institutions that serve the majority of students and play central roles in the evolution of economies and societies.

Emerging market governments should recognize that the search for excellence should not be confined to whole institutions; that departments, units and faculties within a given institution may shine brighter than others; and that uniform institution-wide standards may neither be feasible nor cost-effective.

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