From Zero to Hero: Building world-class universities

May 31 2012

Achieving world-class status is a marathon, not a sprint, but notes Jamil Salmi, rapid progress can be made with the right regimen - particularly when starting from scratch

From zero to hero
Credit: Alamy


About eighty-five institutions in the Western world established by 1520 still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and with unbroken histories, including the Catholic Church, the parliaments of the Isle of Man, of Ireland and of Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and seventy universities. Kings that rule, feudal lords with vassals, and guilds with monopolies are all gone. These seventy universities, however, are still in the same locations with some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things, and with governance carried on in much the same ways.

Clark Kerr (1982)

As Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, noted, the quest for knowledge is enduring and endless. Universities, by providing a home for this quest, have persisted as well. But not all universities are the same, and the quest for knowledge has expanded into a search for comparative excellence in terms of their quality. If an institution does not have hundreds of years of experience, what chance does it have of being among the best?

Achieving world-class university status historically has been a long and complex process. Not surprisingly, the elite universities tend to be old. The top 10 of Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) 2011 were all founded before 1900, and two are more than 800 years old. As is the case with good wines, academic excellence traditionally has required careful care and a long maturation period.

However, this notion has been challenged of late on several counts. First, the regular publication of annual global league tables, led by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the ARWU, appears to imply that significant progress can be expected from one year to the next.

Second, the decision of several middle- and high-income countries to step up investment in support of their elite universities under various "excellence initiatives" shows their determination to attain drastic short-term improvement.

Finally, several universities have recently been created in emerging economies such as Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia with the declared ambition of rapidly becoming "world class".

Is it realistic to believe that a university can reach the top at such an accelerated pace? Is it possible to develop more rapidly, using increased funding and political will, what historically has evolved over a long time?

In my book The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities (2009) and the tome I edited with Philip Altbach, The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities (2011), some of these issues are addressed.

Before the invention of international higher education league tables in 2003, the status of elite universities was dependent on their reputation as places of high-quality teaching, learning and research. The conceptual framework developed to understand the outstanding results of world-class universities - highly sought-after graduates, leading-edge research and dynamic technology transfer - singled out three complementary factors at play: a high concentration of talent (faculty and students); abundant resources to offer a rich learning environment and to facilitate advanced research; and favourable governance features that encourage strategic vision, innovation and flexibility, enabling institutions to make decisions and manage their resources without being strangled by bureaucracy.

Looking at these factors, it is clear to see that there is no easy shortcut to achieving the concentration of academic and financial resources needed to claim world-class university status. Developing a strong culture of excellence, especially in research, is usually the result of incremental progress and consolidation over decades, sometimes even centuries.

However, time is necessary but insufficient: indeed, being an old university is no guarantee of academic excellence. To the chagrin of many continental Europeans, the first ARWU did not give historical brand names such as the universities of Bologna and Heidelberg or the Sorbonne a standing commensurate with their reputation as noble temples of knowledge. Examined through the lens of specific and targeted indicators, they simply did not stack up against universities with adequate funding, modern governance, research talent and institutional autonomy - fundamental elements of a world-class university.

In the case of France, for instance, the results exposed major systemic problems with the selection of students, funding and management.

Recent experiences in emerging countries have shown that rapid progress can be made in a relatively short space of time with a focus on three key elements: proper financial mechanisms; strong governance; and a concentration of talent.

The Road to Academic Excellence documents institutions that have achieved national and even global pre-eminence in a few decades, sometimes fewer than three. Four examples are the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the National University of Singapore, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and South Korea's Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech).

HKUST has enjoyed a unique combination of favourable factors from the beginning. At a critical moment of transformation for the territory as a result of the handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China in 1997, the university was established with the benefit of a clear vision, strong leadership, an outstanding academic body, an innovative educational model, ample resources and a supportive governance and management framework.

But is the example of HKUST too exceptional to offer useful lessons to other countries and institutions? It is true that the situation of "perfect star alignment" enjoyed by the university would not be easy to replicate, let alone sustain over the long run. But the various case studies documented in The Road to Academic Excellence highlight a number of generic elements that are worth mentioning.

Among the key "accelerating factors" that can play a positive role in the quest for excellence - attracting foreign talent, using English, focusing on niche programmes, carrying out systematic benchmarking and introducing educational innovations - the most influential appears to be reliance on the diaspora.

As Postech and HKUST have shown, convincing large numbers of overseas scholars to return to their country of origin is an effective way of building up the academic strength of an institution rapidly (provided that appropriate funding can be maintained to sustain this approach in the long term).

Combined with this, a second element seen in the case studies is the use of English as the main working language, which enhances greatly the ability of an institution to attract highly qualified foreign academics, as Singapore has managed to accomplish.

Concentrating on niche areas (such as the sciences and engineering) is a third method for achieving critical mass more rapidly, as illustrated by the experiences of Postech, the IITs and HKUST. Two of the most dynamic European institutions - ETH Zurich-Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and ETH Lausanne - are engineering schools.

Specialisation is also one of the factors behind the rapid rise of the Aga Khan University in Karachi, which from its beginnings in 1983 has concentrated on medical science and related programmes.

A fourth approach consists of using benchmarking as a guide to orient the institution in its upgrading efforts. Shanghai Jiao Tong, for instance, first anchored its strategic planning in careful comparisons with leading Chinese universities before going on to include foreign universities in its benchmarking exercises.

A fifth and final way of driving improvements quickly is to introduce significant curricular and pedagogical innovations. HKUST, for example, was the first US-style university in Hong Kong, distinguishing it from the existing institutions in the territory, which were founded according to the British model. And the Higher School of Economics in Moscow was among the first Russian institutions to offer an integrated teaching and research curriculum under one roof and to establish a fully digital library.

Such innovative features - part of the "latecomer advantage" - are of great consequence for new institutions that need to entice students away from established rivals and get them to take the risk of enrolling on "unknown" programmes. The experience of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, which was established in 1997, proves that through a highly innovative academic model (and despite close proximity in its case to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), a newcomer can attract first-rate academics and students.

Perhaps surprisingly, the trajectory of the universities I have analysed suggests that it may be easier to reach world-class status by establishing a new institution than by attempting to upgrade an existing one. In particular, it is much less complicated to set up a favourable governance framework for newcomers than it is to try to transform the mode of operation of existing institutions.

It is striking to see that in Europe, the top business schools in the Financial Times ranking are stand-alone institutions, unlike in the US, where the best ones are part of strong universities.

This does not mean that it is impossible for an existing institution to improve significantly. Denmark's Aarhus University, for example, has undergone impressive reform under the impetus of its innovative rector, Lauritz Broder Holm-Nielsen, who is keen on encouraging progress "without a burning platform", just as Rajesh Chandra, the University of the South Pacific's vice-chancellor, has been leading strategic change under the banner "good is not good enough".

The majority of today's leading universities are among the oldest tertiary education institutions in the world, and this is no coincidence. What could be called the "vintage" element is definitely an advantage enjoyed by the most ancient universities, such as the reputation to continue to attract the best scholars and students, and thus self-perpetuate excellence.

But in recent years, the recognition that higher education is part and parcel of national competitive advantage, coupled with the impetus given by global rankings, has led to a change in the way governments and institutional leaders look at the role and importance of universities. There is growing belief that with proper leadership and investment, existing universities that have never sat at the global top table can be drastically transformed over a relatively short period into world-class institutions. Evidence from recent case studies, however, shows that while not impossible, upgrading existing institutions to such status poses greater challenges than developing world-class universities from scratch.

In either case, it is clear that building excellence remains a long-term endeavour, requiring thoughtful and measured approaches for sustainability. In that respect, the global rankings may be seen as an unhelpful distraction, as their annual publication gives the mistaken impression that a university can change substantially from one year to the next.

Even those young institutions best placed to realise world-class ambitions should bear in mind that taking a research university to the top requires decades of relentless effort without cutting corners. Unlike a vintage wine that will vary in taste and quality from year to year, a university on the path to academic excellence should stay the course and play the long game at all times.

As Daniel Lincoln, a visiting scholar at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, recently wrote: "Excellence, like all things of abiding value, is a marathon, not a sprint."

Jamil Salmi is a global tertiary education expert