World-Class Universities [Higher Education Policy Journal]

Jeroen Huisman, Higher Education Policy (2008) 21, 1–4

The central theme of this issue of Higher Education Policy — world-class universities — is high on the agenda of various stakeholders across the globe (see also Altbach and Balán, 2007). Many national governments develop policies to stimulate the emergence or strengthening of such universities. The qualification ‘world-class’ is quite often used, but references to top research or elite universities, or as many of the contributors to this special issue do: the global research university, are made as well. The drivers for such policies are rather common across the countries. Supporting or developing a world-class university — or if the size of the system and the governmental budgets allow for this — several world-class universities, is considered by many to be a necessary and unavoidable step to be able to compete at a global level.

The theme of world-class and top universities is, however, not without ambiguities. For sure, it is understood that universities want to perform at the highest levels and that some want to be the best in the world. Analogous to sports, one convincingly could argue that if a person or team is able to beat its competitors in a global competition, indeed that person or team — for the time being, for future challenges await — can be considered world-class. The comparison with higher education is a bit awkward, for at least two reasons. First, universities do not compete in a similar way. That is, there is no real one-to-one combat or league in which universities compete against each other, leaving exceptions such as students battling in University Challenge aside. Terms like ‘beating’, ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ are not part of the higher education vocabulary yet. If there is something like a competition, it is at most virtual: universities try to perform well in certain areas and benchmark their performance against other universities. Rankings and league tables are good examples of such a form of competition, but even in these competitions it would be too far-fetched to maintain that university X has beaten university Y in a global competition. Second, and more importantly, most often the rules for using the terms ‘world-class’, ‘top’ or ‘elite’ are unclear. In sports, regulations set by international associations define and determine how one can reach the status of world champion. But in the field of higher education self-acclaimed top quality seems to be the name of the game.

Such developments might bring the idea of world-class in jeopardy. One reason for this is straightforward: logic forbids that so many universities can be considered world-class. A second reason is that higher education institutions quite often neglect to set out in what respect they consider themselves world-class, excellent or leading, let alone that they deliver any proof of their position. One of the statements I found on a university website runs like: ‘we are proud of our reputation of the North-West of England’s leading higher education institution’. Acknowledging that this statement should be interpreted in the context of the broader message the institution wants to convey, it cannot escape our attention that the statement cleverly avoids to mention where the North-West begins and ends, and actually discloses in what respect the institution may be leading.

Less ambiguity — although this is a matter of relativity — exists when it comes to deriving world-class status from rankings. Next to the large number of universities that play word games around the concept of ‘world-class’, there is a fair number of universities that set out where they — literally — stand in terms of ranking and which qualities (performance indicators) have brought them to that position. Such revelations should be welcomed from the transparency perspective, although one could argue there are serious shortcomings when it comes to measuring performances. What could be seen as a much more serious problem, however, is that all this attention to performances gravitates towards an ideal, a typical picture of a particular type of institution: the research-intensive university. The availability of rather hard data on research performance makes it easier to calculate relative positions of departments and universities. But activities less easily to measure — education, service to society — run the risk of being underplayed in the debate and competitions.

What this all boils down to is that the model of the global, research-intensive university has a phenomenal appeal to higher education institutions, irrespective of their current position. Many, arguably too many, higher education institutions aspire to reach ‘world-class’ status, whereas it is debatable whether this would be a sound development. The challenge of reaching world-class status — in its limited meaning of the fairly large research-intensive university — may keep institutional leaders and governments from paying attention to another crucial need: the need to preserve diversified national or continental systems of higher education, in which the research-intensive university co-exists with the small college, and the regional professional higher education institution and in which each of these types has sufficient potential for survival if not prosperity.