“…All regions and countries can benefit from progress toward a knowledge-based economy, which does not depend heavily on material resources, places less of a burden on ecosystems and is more sustainable than other economic models. By shifting to a knowledge-based economy, societies can move from the age of scarcity to the age of abundance. Knowledge does not deplete with use but rather increases as it is shared among people. Through technological innovation, we can help usher in a more sustainable future…”

Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General (24 April 2014)

The Brazilian aviation company, Embraer, is the world leader in the production of regional jets. The success of the country’s emblematic firm can be traced back to the creation of ITA, the National Aeronautic Engineering School, in the early 1950s. Established in close partnership with MIT, and widely considered today as Brazil’s top engineering school, ITA has trained the scientists, engineers and technicians who helped build Embraer into a leading global company.

Typhidot is a revolutionary method to diagnose typhoid fever. Invented by scientists at the Malaysian University of Science in Penang (USM), Typhidot is credited with saving thousands of lives. Compared with traditional methods for detecting the disease, Typhidot is faster, more reliable, cheaper, and it does not require cold storage. USM’s Center for Medical Innovations and Technology Development, from which Typhidot originates, is dedicated to finding innovative ways of diagnosing infectious diseases in an effective, quick and affordable manner.

Until the beginning of this decade, most practicing teachers in Palestinian primary schools were poorly prepared and did not have a university degree. After new regulations required all teachers to have both a university degree and a relevant professional teaching qualification, three West Bank universities worked together, with support from a renowned British teacher training institution, to radically overhaul their pre-service teacher training program, introducing a competency-based approach and a school experience element. A quasi-experimental study carried out after three years of implementation found very high value added for the new pre-service teaching program.

These are but three examples to illustrate the unique and vital contribution that tertiary education makes to economic and social development. But notwithstanding this crucial developmental role, for several decades traditional human capital theory challenged the need for public support of tertiary education on the grounds that graduates captured important private benefits—notably higher salaries and lower unemployment—that should not be subsidized by taxpayers. Influenced by this argument, many multilateral and bilateral donor agencies focused their support on basic education rather than investing as well in the expansion and improvement of tertiary education systems in developing countries.

In the 1990s, however, a growing body of research demonstrated the importance of going beyond rate-of-return analysis to measure the full value of tertiary education as a fundamental pillar of sustainable development. By focusing primarily on the private returns of government spending, rate-of-return analysis failed to capture the broader social benefits accruing to society, which are important to recognize and measure. These include research externalities, entrepreneurship, job creation, good economic and political governance, and the positive effects that a highly educated cadre of workers has on a nation’s health and social fabric.

Building on these findings, the path-breaking 2000 report entitled Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise called for scaling up investment in tertiary education and research to equip developing countries with the knowledge and the qualified manpower needed to fight poverty and accelerate economic growth. Written by a distinguished group of independent experts with financial support from UNESCO and the World Bank, the report had an important impact at three levels. First, it helped reorient donor policies to give greater attention to tertiary education in partner countries. Second, it unleashed several reform initiatives in the developing countries themselves. Third, it paved the way for increased South-South networking and collaborative activities.

Fifteen years later, the world of tertiary education has changed significantly. Developing countries have seen tremendous enrollment growth, especially in the private sector. Many of them are facing an exponentially rising demand as more young people graduate from high school as a result of successes in implementing the Education for All agenda. Against this background, the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations in September 2015 has given renewed consideration to the importance of education for development and the urgency of putting in place viable financing strategies to expand and transform tertiary education. Indeed, it is doubtful that any low-income country can achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without a strong tertiary education system.

In addition to the essential contribution that tertiary education can make to the goals of sustainable economic growth (SDG 8) and poverty reduction (SDG 1), advances on all the other 15 dimensions, from developing a vibrant agricultural sector and building up a resilient infrastructure to mitigating the devastating effects of climate change and preserving the environment, cannot happen without the participation of scientists and well-trained professionals and the application of leading edge research for finding appropriate solutions to the big challenges faced by mankind. With respect to the goal of diminished inequality (SDG 10), tertiary education plays a critical role in promoting social mobility through equal educational opportunities for all groups, especially the most vulnerable groups in society (low-income groups, minorities, people with special needs, etc.). Achieving the SDGs also requires strong institutions for policy design and implementation, and well-prepared citizens who care about social and economic inclusion and environmental sustainability.

The contribution of tertiary education is crucial, in particular, for achieving real progress in basic and secondary education. A recent study found that more than a quarter of all primary school teachers in 31 countries had not achieved the minimum education standards themselves. Tertiary education supports the rest of the education system through the training of effective teachers and school principals, the involvement of highly qualified specialists in curriculum development and educational research, and the design of appropriate tests to assess students learning outcomes. The symbiotic linkage between tertiary education and the lower levels of schooling has the potential of stimulating a virtuous circle of capacity building in as far as the quality of tertiary education affects the quality of primary and secondary school education and is, in turn, directly influenced by the quality of secondary school graduates.

A similar argument applies to the fundamental role of medical education and research for meeting the health sustainable development goal (SDG 3). Universities train the medical doctors, nurses, technicians, epidemiologists, public health specialists, and hospital managers who form the most important pillar of any health system. Universities and associated health institutes conduct the fundamental research and a significant share of the applied research that condition any significant progress in the fight against diseases and health hazards.

Developing countries must build up their capacity to deal with serious health issues not only because of domestic policy needs, but also in order to contribute effectively to the resolution of global health crises through collaborative research. Indeed, research production has moved from being discipline-driven to problem-focused, with diverse teams of scientists from several disciplinary areas collaborating on the resolution of complex problems, which often correspond to shared challenges that affect mankind as a whole, regardless of political boundaries. This evolution is best illustrated by the global health issues that have come up in recent years, from SARS to MERS to the latest Ebola epidemics in West Africa. In the case of SARS, for example, identifying the corona virus required data sharing and collaborative efforts on an unprecedented scale. This experience has radically changed how the international scientific community responds to emerging global health threats.

This blog was initially published by Inside Higher Education.

This week, the world of education lost one of its finest champions: Gwang-Jo Kim.   Korean by birth, citizen of the world by choice, Gwang-Jo was an educator with a passion.   He believed that schools should be happy places where children would learn to live with tolerance and peace. Gwang-Jo’s last position as director of the UNESCO regional office for Asia and the Pacific gave him an effective platform to fight tirelessly on behalf of equal opportunities in education at all levels and promote his dreams of social justice and peaceful coexistence.

I met Gwang-Jo seventeen years ago, when he worked at the World Bank on a two-year secondment from the Korean Ministry of Education. Gwang-Jo’s knowledge and experience were so rich and relevant that he was invited to stay on for a third year. I remember how all the people he worked with in developing countries appreciated his intellectual generosity and his modesty in sharing his knowledge. Gwang-Jo was wise, funny and curious. Everyone was keen to benefit from his advice and learn from his experience. And his love of music was catchy. I remember how, during a visit to Colombia, he astonished everyone by singing, in Spanish, a popular Latin American song. As many people were finding it difficult to pronounce his Korean name, he told them in his usual down-to-earth manner “just call me Juancho!”

After the World Bank, Gwang-Jo became vice-minister of education in his country. But no matter how successful he was in his professional life, moving from government to the top regional UNESCO position, he always remained the same committed professional and kind friend. He was also the most generous host, as many of us experienced in Seoul and Bangkok. I was privileged to accompany him on a visit to his native town, Gyeongju, where we shared the best seafood meal I ever ate and watched the sun rise from the sea in a moving moment of silent sharing.

I shall miss you, Gwang-Jo, my colleague for a few years and my friend forever.  You are an inspiration to all of us who knew you.

Professor Fernando Reimers wrote a beautiful testimony about Gwang-Jo’s life and impact, which I reproduce below with his permission. No one could have described better how Gwang-Jo’s gentleness, generosity and humility touched the heart and mind of everyone he met.

Post by Fernando Reimers – Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education Harvard Graduate School of Education

I met Gwang-Jo Kim when we were both students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, more than three decades ago. I learned a great deal from his work ethic, his extraordinary determination and focus on his studies, and from his intellect. We were brought together by our shared broken English, our shared doctoral advisor, Professor Russell Davis, the many courses we took together, and the fact that we both came from far away, were living extremely frugally out of necessity more than disposition, and did a number of poorly paid student jobs, such as painting student dorms, to pay our bills. Gwang Jo’s hopeful spirit and humor lifted me up on more than one occasion from the pressing burden of having to write many research papers in a language that was very much foreign to us then, during the short days of winter, with little money in our pockets. Our conversations as we painted those rooms or crossed paths in the library helped to keep me focused on the long term, on the better world we were going to build as a result of our efforts to advance educational opportunity. Amidst those demands and pressures we lived as graduate students, Gwang-Jo made time to be with his family by sleeping few hours.

Over the last three decades I had the pleasure of seeing Gwang-Jo pursue an extraordinarily successful career in international development, and achieve the dreams he had discussed as we painted the student rooms in the Cronkhite Graduate Center at Harvard. He became a deputy secretary of education of South Korea, a senior education official at the World Bank, and eventually Director of UNESCO’s office for Asia and the Pacific. These were remarkable accomplishments for a man who had come from the most humble beginnings, accomplishments he had earned purely as a result of talent and effort. But to Gwang Jo, GJ as his colleagues in Unesco Bangkok called him, these accomplishments were important only because they provided him a platform from which to serve others, especially children. It was a joy to watch his sophistication in engaging ministers, premiers, members of royalty, and his colleagues in the international development community, and in getting them to collaborate to produce valuable results for the education of children.

Gwang-Jo Kim represented the best of UNESCO in his commitment to the enduring mission of the organization: the advancement of human rights and the promotion of peace and sustainability through education. His capacity for innovation and his imagination to bring people together on behalf of bigger purposes were inspiring, to his staff, to me and to my students, as was his resiliency and determination to see projects through until they achieved results.

With grace, Gwang-Jo steered UNESCO towards meaningful and relevant work even as financial resources dwindled. He brought together often all ministers of education of Asia and the Pacific to examine how to create jobs for youth, how to promote entrepreneurship, how to build a culture of innovation. He was passionate about helping to rebuild education in regions in conflict, and had a firm belief in the power of schools to help societies heal from the wounds of violence. In his last years, he was focused on finding ways to work with governments so they could support public schools to more effectively promote socio-emotional development and happiness.

Gwang-Jo led one of the jewels of UNESCO with great humility. At gatherings of Ministers of Education, I saw him bring his guitar, and conclude a full day of meaningful and productive discussions, with a performance in which he sang songs in several languages. He had learned to play the guitar, and to fly kytes, while serving as Director of UNESCO in Bangkok. He explained it helped him put life in perspective and keep balance. He advised me to pick up a hobby years ago, as I visited him and his wife in their apartment in Bangkok; with the demeanor of an older brother he explained that a hobby would help me be ready for the changes life would bring as I aged. The next time I saw him, when he took a detour on a trip to the UN to come speak to my students at Harvard, I showed him a garden I had started and he seemed pleased I had followed his advice.

At our last conversation in person, during a visit I paid him in Thailand, he shared plans he was just sketching for life after retiring from UNESCO, to return to the village of his roots, perhaps to teach, to continue to give of himself to the children, to educate the next generation so we could have a better world. Our last exchange, three weeks ago, was over an innovation award he had helped establish to recognize programs to strengthen the capacities of teachers in Asia. He confirmed he would be retiring at the end of August, as he had planned to do some time ago. ‘I will soon update you about my retired life.’ he wrote. I was hopeful we could persuade him to come and do some teaching to our students, as I know how good he would have been to them.

Gwang-Jo made UNESCO a much better institution than he found it, during a time of severe financial constrains and complicated geo-politics. He helped advance the education of children through his service to the government of his country and as an international development leader, and he did it with distinction and effectiveness. He did more than his share to improve the world, with the same humble, generous and humorous spirit that I remember from our days as graduate students at Harvard, over three decades ago. He reached great heights in his profession while never forgetting his humble roots.

My heart goes out to his widow and his two sons, to his colleagues and friends. I know he will always be with us in our memories.

Thank you Gwang-Jo, for all you taught me and so many others, for your example, for your leadership, for your love and relentless work for Peace.

Originally posted on The Huffington Post

“The opportunity to start from a blank page and create an entire institution from concept to reality is a rare and precious gift. It enables many possibilities that would be unthinkable at established universities… But it requires vision, passion, and courage to attempt to innovate and to deliberately create a new and improved learning culture”.

Richard Miller, Founding President of Olin College

“Mistake is the best teacher”.

Anonymous

 

In the past decade, the term “world-class university” has become a catchphrase to describe research universities at the pinnacle of the tertiary education hierarchy, as measured by the various international rankings. Around the world, governments have responded to this global reputational competition with additional funding to promote their national elite universities, as illustrated by the various “Excellence Initiatives” in countries as varied as China, Denmark, Germany, Nigeria, Russia, South Korea, Spain, or Taiwan. In some cases, the government has also encouraged its top universities to merge so as to achieve economies of scale, and reach a better position to compete globally. A few countries have even decided to establish new universities from scratch, with the explicit purpose of creating world-class institutions.

Achieving the ambitious result of launching a high quality, new university is easier said than done, however, as building a world-class institution requires more than knee-jerk reactions to the rankings or massive infusion of government money. It is a complex and lengthy process that has only recently begun to receive careful attention. The following examples outline the most common pitfalls encountered in some of the current projects that aim at establishing a new flagship institution.

  1. Build a magnificent campus; expect magic to happen. The physical infrastructure is obviously the most visible part of a new university. A lot of care is usually given to the design and construction of impressive, state-of-the-art facilities, and rightly so. Good academic infrastructure is certainly an important part of the education experience of students, and researchers need adequate laboratories to carry out leading-edge scientific inquiries. But, without an appropriate governance set-up, a strong leadership team, a well-thought curriculum, and highly qualified academics, the beautiful campus will remain little more than an empty shell that embodies a waste of valuable resources.
  2. Design the curriculum after constructing the facilities. It is often wrongly assumed that it is easy to tailor the educational programs that will be taught to the physical environment of the institution. This may be true for traditional lecture-based teaching, but innovative pedagogical practices often require equally innovative facilities. For example, interactive approaches, problem-based learning or pedagogical methods relying heavily on teamwork and peer learning are constrained by the physical limitations of conventional lecture halls or even classrooms. Libraries and laboratories have evolved dramatically in recent years due to changes in technology. The promoters of a new university should refrain from launching into the architectural design stage of their institution until they have established not only a clear definition of the vision and mission of the new institution but have also determined some of the specific content of teaching and research. It is particularly essential (and most prudent) to prepare the academic plan of the new institution ahead of the construction of the physical infrastructure and to tailor the latter to the requirements of the former rather than the other way around. At the very least, the academic staff should be given the opportunity to influence the design of the pedagogical and research spaces of the new institution.
  3. Import all the content from somewhere else. Why reinvent the wheel? The teams in charge of establishing new universities tend to look almost exclusively at the top-ranked institutions in industrial countries to buy or copy elements of their curriculum instead of going through the more labor-intensive process of custom designing their own programs. While this may seem expedient and practical, it is not the most effective way of building the academic culture of a new university that aims to reach high standards. The Harvards and Oxfords of this world are unique institutions that have evolved over centuries, and it is unrealistic to think that reproducing their distinctive academic model is possible or even desirable. And it is impractical to envision shopping around and bringing curricular fragments from a variety of top notch institutions across different countries / cultures, assuming that everything could easily gel together and fall in place to create an authentic learning and research culture in the new university. Curriculum development is demanding work, but it is the main mechanism that can allow a unique and innovative organizational culture to emerge.
  4. Design with an OECD ecosystem in mind, implement in a challenging environment. Replicating the three key features that make flagship universities in industrial countries successful—concentration of talent, abundant resources and favorable governance—is a fundamental requirement, but it does not encompass the full complement of operational conditions that underpin the authorizing environment of a successful world-class institution. It is difficult if not impossible to create and maintain thriving universities when the tertiary education ecosystem within which they operate is not fully supportive. Some potentially important dimensions of a favorable ecosystem include leadership at the national level (existence of a vision about the future of tertiary education, capacity to implement reforms), the regulatory framework (legal provisions, governance structure and management processes at the national and institutional levels), the quality assurance framework, the mechanisms and pathways integrating the various types of tertiary education institutions, the financial resources and incentives, along with the digital and telecommunications infrastructure. To operate adequately, all of these require an overarching set of conditions which have to do with political and economic stability, the rule of law, the existence of basic freedoms, and a favorable location from the viewpoint of the spatial environment in which the new tertiary education institution is meant to operate (local economic, social and cultural life). The absence of even only one of these elements or the lack of alignment among these various dimensions is likely to compromise the ability of new universities to progress and endure.
  5. Delay putting in place the governing board and appointing the leadership team. The resolution to establish a new university is often a political decision reflecting a visionary ambition at the highest levels that a ministry or a technical project team is then charged with putting into action. This typically leads to a centrally managed design and implementation process. Given that the establishment of a new university requires passion and drive to create a new organizational culture, it cannot be built by a committee that is not fully committed. A project of such magnitude must be fully owned and carried out by a dynamic leadership team, working under the authority of an independent board with the capacity to offer guidance and empowerment. The first order of business of the new board has to be the identification, selection and installation of institutional leadership. Putting in place an appropriate governance framework from the outset is a key factor of success.
  6. Stack the board with political appointees. Founders need to choose a governing board that brings together a range of essential expertise that can evolve over time. The governing board should start out small and grow very gradually to accommodate more expertise as needed. The common oversight is that people are appointed to boards on the assumption that they “represent” their institution or represent a constituency, when really they should represent an area of expertise needed in the management of the new and growing institution (legal expert, financial expert, infrastructure expert, academic experts, retired institutional leaders, etc.). Another, related misstep is to appoint governing board members who have too little time. It is better to have the board skewed toward recently retired university presidents or experts than to have too many members with insufficient time and dedication to the endeavor.
  7. Plan for up-front capital costs, but pay little attention to the long-term financial sustainability. The promoters of a new university usually announce with enthusiasm the huge endowment dedicated to the establishment of the new institution, but the initial capital investment is only one part of the total project. It is essential to provide adequately for the first few years of operation and to establish a thoughtful business model that allows the new institution to grow and endure in a financially sustainable manner.
  8. Engage in mergers for the wrong reasons. Because some of the key indicators used by global rankings put a premium on the number of publications produced by research universities, the temptation to merge institutions in order to maximize measurable outputs has become stronger in recent years. Whether the initiative comes from institutional leaders themselves or from government, mergers are risky undertakings. First, the new, consolidated institution can be dysfunctional because of clashing institutional cultures. One of the main challenges when undertaking a merger is to create a shared academic culture and transformation vision among all constituting units (faculties, schools, departments) and bring internal coherence to the newly established institution. Second, the merged institution may become too large to be managed effectively. The experience of mega-universities in Latin America indicates that it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain high quality teaching, learning and research in over-sized institutions.  Mergers make sense only if the strengths of the merging institutions complement each other, thereby making it easy to build critical mass and achieve significant synergies. In fact, the more successful mergers appear to be those that resemble more acquisitions than mergers per se. This happens when one institution takes the initiative to absorb an outside school or department that can usefully complement its own offerings and boost its strengths, as illustrated by the experience of the Lausanne Polytechnic School (EPFL), which took over, as part of its upgrading strategy, the math, physics and chemistry departments of the University of Lausanne.
  9. Be too ambitious in the quantitative growth targets. The leaders of new institutions sometimes think that they can rapidly enroll large numbers of students, often in the tens of thousands. This is rarely achieved without sacrificing quality. In the 1970s, E.F. Schumacher wrote in his famous book “Small is Beautiful” that successful development projects were preferably of a small size. Small is still beautiful today, especially when it applies to setting up a new college or university. It is usually a better idea to begin with few programs and a small student body if quality is a priority. It allows the new institution to deploy resources more prudently, take adequate time to develop a nurturing academic culture, and give precedence to quality considerations. Once a strong academic culture is in place, it is easier to scale up.
  10. Think that everything can be accomplished in eighteen months. A variant of over-ambitious planning is assuming that a new institution can be launched in a matter of months and that high quality teaching and research can be accomplished within a few years of establishing a new university. In reality, rushing through the initial phase of design and implementation—the big bang approach—can only lead to hasty decisions that can have an adverse effect on the quality and cost of the project. Institution building is a long-term process that requires stable leadership, continuous improvement, and patience. As observed by Daniel Lincoln, “excellence, like all things of abiding value, is a marathon, not a sprint”. Taking the long view is especially important when it comes to developing the robust scientific capacity and the critical mass needed to produce leading edge research and innovative technological applications.
  11. Rely exclusively on foreign academics without building local capacity. Hiring foreign academics is common practice to accelerate the launch of a new university in a country with limited capacity. Indeed, it makes good sense to bring experienced instructors and researchers to help put new programs in place; it can also be a very effective capacity-building strategy when an important part of the mission of the foreign academics is to train younger, less experienced academics from the host country. At the same time, it can be a risky and counter-productive approach in the absence of systematic efforts to attract and retain qualified national academics. It can even lead to fraudulent practices when the young university contracts eminent researchers whose main contribution is to lend their signature and publish in the name of the new university. As with most plans that include reliance on outside actors, the strategy of bringing on foreign academic staff should fundamentally serve the aim of grooming national academics and building local research capacity.
  1. Neglect to integrate your foreign students well. In their search for world-class status, new institutions are aware that internationalization can be an important factor for shaping a global curriculum and attracting foreign talent. In that context, many universities try to boost their intake of qualified—and often fee-paying—foreign students, a dimension that is privileged by some of the global rankings as an essential mark of performance. But, bringing in many foreign students can be counter-productive if the receiving university does not have in place a proper system to ensure their smooth integration. The unhappy experience of foreign students can negatively affect the international reputation of the concerned university—or even damage the image of the entire country—when news of the unsatisfactory experiences of former students define the inquiries of potential students. Moreover, such negativity can be amplified by incidents linked to hostile attitudes in society at large, as has happened recently in countries where the anti-immigration debate has been revived by populist politicians. A constructive way of dealing with this issue is to use the presence of foreign students as a vehicle for internationalizing the curriculum in terms of both program content and pedagogical practices.
  1. Focus on the global research scene at the expense of the local environment. Developing a strong research community is one of the most challenging elements in any attempt to build a world-class university from scratch. This is often achieved by bringing eminent researchers from the Diaspora back home and/or attracting top foreign academics who are well connected and successfully engage in leading-edge collaborative research across frontiers. This is a reasonable strategy provided it does not come at the cost of conducting locally relevant research and forming strong linkages with the local economic actors. The absence of a well-developed local innovation system is often a major obstacle but it should not detract the new university from seeking the right balance between global reach and local engagement.
  1. Be obsessed with the rankings. Too often, politicians and university leaders mistake the measuring instrument for the goal. A few countries have even framed their excellence initiative in ranking target terms and a growing number of universities have appointed “ranking officers” dedicated to rankings simulations and the preparation of scenarios to guide the climb of their institution to the top. While the rankings can be useful tools for benchmarking the global position of universities, rising in the rankings should not be the priority or a goal in itself. Institutions that work relentlessly at increasing the quality of teaching and learning and improving their research output will automatically do better in the rankings without needing to fixate on them.

Launching a new university with the aspiration of attaining the highest possible standards is a noble but extremely difficult enterprise. The road to academic excellence is full of pitfalls, as illustrated by this discussion of the most commonly observed errors. Above all, growing and sustaining a top-tier university requires inspirational and far-sighted leaders who can innovate and adapt to the changing environment while staying true to the core mission, and who are deft at balancing the local commitment and the global reach.

Finally, the decision to build a world-class university must always be examined within the proper context to ensure full alignment with the national tertiary education strategy and avoid distortions in resource allocation. With thoughtful and realistic planning, however, reaching for excellence in tertiary education, at all levels, is always a worthwhile undertaking.

This blog is adapted from an article published on 5 April 2017 in Times Higher Education.  https://www.timeshighereducation.com/world-university-rankings/young-university-rankings-2017-14-mistakes-new-universities-make

 

 

In order to accelerate the transformation process towards building “world-class” universities, a few governments – China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and Spain, for example – have launched so-called “excellence initiatives”, consisting of large injections of additional funding to boost the performance of their university sector. While many of these programs are fairly young, having started in the past decade or even more recently, they have begun to impact the participating universities in a significant way. This makes it imperative to assess how effective these excellence initiatives have been and draw lessons from recent and ongoing experiences. For that purpose, the Russian Academic Excellence Project 5-100 convened an International Conference on Excellence Initiatives on June 30 and July 1, 2016, in collaboration with IREG Observatory on Academic Rankings and Excellence.

One of the most innovative features of this International Conference on Excellence Initiatives, which took place in St-Petersburg, was that it brought together government representatives (Ministry officials and managers of Excellence Initiatives implementation offices), university leaders – the “victims” or beneficiaries of these excellence initiatives – and higher education researchers focusing on rankings and other measures of academic excellence.

While the first excellence initiatives, especially in East Asia and the Nordic Countries, reflected a long-term national policy to strengthen the contribution of tertiary education to economic development, the most recent wave seems to have been primarily stimulated by the perception of a competitive disadvantage relative to the more stellar performance of foreign universities, as measured by the global rankings. This was definitely the case with the 2012 French initiative that has encouraged mergers and alliances to give more visibility to the top universities in the country, or the 2013 Academic Excellence Project in Russia, which explicitly aims to place 5 universities in the top 100 by 2020. As a result, most of the Excellence Initiatives have sought to promote internationalization as a mechanism for attracting top academic talent, thus strengthening the research capacity of leading universities and reducing in-breeding.

As discussed during the Conference, most excellence initiatives have put more emphasis on research than teaching. Spain is an exception, with careful consideration being given to the balanced development of a strong research capacity, modern teaching and learning practices, and active collaboration with the economic environment.

Many excellence initiatives mark a significant philosophical shift in the funding policies of the participating countries, notably in Europe. In France, Germany, Russia and Spain, for instance, where all public universities had traditionally been considered to be equally good in terms of performance, the excellence initiatives have brought a move away from the principle of uniform budget entitlements towards a substantial element of competitive, performance-based funding.

Indeed, the selection process to choose the beneficiary universities and/or centers of excellence is perhaps the most noteworthy element of excellence initiatives. In the majority of cases, the governments approach has involved a competition among eligible universities with a thorough peer review process to select the best proposals. The peer review process usually relies on the work of expert evaluation teams including a mix of national and international experts.

As competition for funding among universities gets fiercer, the importance of cooperation should not be overlooked. Evidence shows that researchers are most effective when they participate in collaborative projects, nationally or internationally. During the Conference, participants explained how the type of international collaborative research promoted by excellence initiatives tends to be of higher quality and has a greater influence than traditional research. The Canadian program of chairs of excellence, for example, has brought about unexpected synergies resulting from collaborations across universities.

One of the other positive outcomes of excellence initiatives is that they have allowed a new generation of university leaders to emerge. The successful transformation and upgrading of universities, which is what excellence initiatives pursue, requires indeed a bold vision and the capacity to change the mindset of the academic community in the search of academic excellence.

The Conference participants spent a lot of time talking about the need to set up proper monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to assess the results of excellence initiatives. Are the global rankings adequate measures to provide a good sense of the effectiveness of the programs? Would benchmarking be a more appropriate approach to evaluate the impact of excellence initiatives?

Measuring the effectiveness and impact of excellence initiatives on the beneficiary universities is not an easy task for at least two reasons: time and attribution. First, upgrading a university takes many years, eight to ten at the very minimum. Since many excellence initiatives are fairly recent, attempts at measuring success could be premature in most cases. It is indeed unlikely that the scientific production of beneficiary universities would increase significantly within the first few years immediately after the beginning of an excellence initiative. A thorough analysis would therefore require looking at a reasonably large sample of institutions for comparison purposes, either within a given country or across countries, over many years. The second challenge is related to attribution. Even if a correlation could be identified on the basis of a large sample of institutions, establishing how the excellence initiatives actually caused the positive changes would require an in-depth evaluation.

In the absence of impact analyses of the recent excellence initiatives, comparing the results of the top universities in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Ranking) over the past decade (2004-2014) offers a few insights. The four countries that have made considerable progress are China (24 additional universities in the top 500), Australia (5 additional universities), Saudi Arabia and Taiwan (4 additional universities each). All four countries have had one or more excellence initiatives, which have facilitated sustained investment in support of their top universities.

At the bottom of the list, the main “losers” are Japan and the United States, which place, respectively, 15 and 24 universities fewer among the top 500 in 2014 compared to ten years earlier. In the case of the United States, it is interesting to note the relatively higher proportion of public universities that dropped out of the ranking, which tends to confirm the adverse impact of the significant reduction in public subsidies since the 2007 financial crisis (or even before in some States).

At the institutional level, the five universities that have climbed most significantly in the ranking over the past decade – Shanghai Jiao Tao University and Fudan University in China, King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, the University of Aix-Marseille in France, and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology – have all received funding from their respective national excellence initiative.

Besides supporting entire universities in their improvement efforts, many excellence initiatives have offered funding to build critical mass by establishing new centers of excellence or strengthening existing ones, oftentimes with a focus on multi-disciplinary approaches. A recent OECD review of excellence initiatives found that one of their major benefits has been to provide funding for high-impact / high-risk basic research as well as for interdisciplinary and cooperative research endeavors.

At the same time, the Conference participants issued a warning based on the observation that excellence initiatives may engender negative behaviors and carry adverse consequences. Policy makers and university leaders must keep in mind the risk of harmful effects on teaching and learning quality because of the research emphasis of most excellence initiatives, reduced equality of opportunities for students from underprivileged groups as universities become more selective, and diminished institutional diversity as all institutions aspire to become world-class universities. Another challenge faced by several excellence initiatives is that, in the absence of an appropriate governance reform to free them from civil service regulations and limitations, beneficiary universities tend to create parallel tracks to provide a positive environment for their star researchers, with state-of-the-art laboratories and US-style doctoral schools operating in isolation from the rest of the university, which may remain untouched by the changes financed through the excellence initiative.

This blog entry was first published by Inside Higher Education on 13 July 2016

Higher education leaders in England, France and Italy often take pride in claiming that their country is the seat of the oldest university in the modern world.  Indeed, Oxford University was set up in 1167, the Sorbonne was created in 1160, and the University of Bologna began to operate in 1088.  But historians have established that, in reality, the oldest university still functioning in modern times is the Qarawyyin in Fes, Morocco, which started as an institution of learning as early as 859.  The Arab world can also take pride in the contribution of other prestigious universities, such as Ez-Zeituna in Tunis, Al-Nizamiyya in Iraq or Al Azhar in Cairo.  More recently, the University of Cairo was hailed as the lighthouse of the Arab intelligentsia for many decades during the twentieth century.

Today, however, the higher education systems of the Arab world face important challenges.  While most countries in the region have witnessed a rapid growth in the number of universities and seen a tremendous increase in student numbers, quality and relevance are sources of serious concern.  Lack of selection and insufficient budgetary resources have resulted, in many cases, in situations of over-crowding and inadequate facilities.  The University of Cairo has more than 250,000 students.  After a recent merger, the University of Rabat enrolls close to 100,000 students.  Many universities in the region operate with a traditional curriculum and outdated pedagogical practices, resulting in high dropout rates—sometimes half of an entire student generation—.  According to Al-Fanar Media, more than half of Jordanian universities recently failed a national proficiency exam held by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.  Finding a job remains a difficult adventure for large numbers of graduates throughout the region.  In fact, graduate unemployment was one of the triggers of the Arab spring, most notably in Tunisia.

In short, the achievements of the Arab higher education systems do not seem to be on par with the economic weight and the long scholarly tradition of these countries.  Compared to the OECD countries and the emerging economies in South-East Asia, the Arab systems are way behind in terms of program quality and research output, they suffer from relatively high levels of graduate unemployment, and are characterized by inadequate governance arrangements.  Many public universities in the Arab region are driven by interest groups who are resistant to change, they suffer high levels of academic in-breeding, and are constrained by rigid and bureaucratic administrative systems.  Some universities are governed by large scientific councils with close to 100 members, which makes it difficult if not impossible to take innovative initiatives.

The Arab world represents 5.8% percent of the world population and produces 4.5% percent of the planet’s GDP, but its universities account for only 0.08% percent of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking.  The poor results of a large country like Egypt—the 15th most populated nation of the world—are striking in contrast to the impressive performance of a small country such as the Netherlands, which places four universities in the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking.  The tiny territory of Hong Kong has more universities in the Shanghai ranking as all Arab countries considered together.

At the same time, it is fair to acknowledge several positive developments in the region.  Saudi Arabia, in particular, stands out for the rapid progress of its top universities in recent years.  Four Saudi universities are present among the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking, two of them appearing in the 150 to 200 group.  It is also the only Arab country included among the top fifty higher education systems ranked by the international consortium Universitas 21 in the annual assessment prepared on its behalf by the University of Melbourne.  Saudi Arabia was ranked number 28 in 2015, up two spots compared to 2014.  Also, in countries as diverse as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, a few private universities have emerged as centers of innovative curricular and pedagogical practices.  KAUST, the youngest public university established in Saudi Arabia, is on its way to becoming rapidly a scientific powerhouse.  But these outstanding examples remain the exception, not the rule.

If universities in the Arab world are to see better days, two key developments are necessary.  First, following the recent examples of a few Gulf States, each nation ought to formulate a comprehensive and audacious vision of the future role of higher education, and translate it into a strategic plan spelling out the concrete reforms, investments and actions needed to implement the vision.  Fostering an institutionally differentiated system, composed not only of research-intensive universities but also good quality teaching universities and community colleges with a professional focus, is important to offer relevant opportunities to the rapidly growing youth population of these countries, and to produce the range of professionals and technicians that the economy needs.  In that context, the Northern African and Middle Eastern countries whose public universities are starved for resources must significantly increase public investment in higher education and research.

Second, the higher education systems in the Arab world need to build their capacity to design and implement deep reforms in a consensual mode, in order to modernize governance structures and processes overall, allowing for increased institutional autonomy and full academic freedom.  To be successful, these reforms must be designed and implemented in a spirit of transparency and objectivity, on the basis of a realistic assessment of existing needs, gaps, strengths and weaknesses.  It would make such a difference if the Arab countries would start showing as much enthusiasm for the transformation and modernization of their higher education systems as for the results of their national soccer teams on their way to the next World Cup qualifier match!

First published by WISE ed.review.  Also available in Arabic.

Seen from an international perspective, the higher education systems of the Ibero-American countries present fascinating contrasts.  They can take pride in the very rapid enrollment increases in recent years and significant efforts to improve the quality of learning and research in a growing number of universities.  Several countries, especially in Latin America, demonstrate a high degree of institutional differentiation with a wide range of public and private universities and non-university tertiary institutions—from technical institutes to technology-focused universities, from small professional schools to large research universities.

Furthermore, the Latin American higher education systems boast some innovative aspects linked to policies to promote equity, the assessment of learning outcomes, and the monitoring of graduates in the labor market, something found in only a few countries worldwide.  Following the example of ICETEX in Colombia—the first student loan agency in the world— several countries now rely on this mechanism to improve opportunities for students from disadvantaged groups, most significantly in Brazil, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.  Other initiatives to make high quality universities more inclusive are also worth mentioning, such as the affirmative action program at UNICAMP in Brazil, bridge schemes to bring talented low income high school graduates into public universities in Chile, and the Colombian private university, Uniminuto, established with the mission of offering a high quality education to students from the most marginalized urban and rural socioeconomic sectors.  Brazil and Colombia are among the few developing countries with a national assessment system to measure student learning outcomes.  Finally, Chile and Colombia have been pioneers in the development of labor market observatories—Mi Futuro and Graduados Colombia, respectively—to follow the professional trajectories of university graduates.

In spite of these positive features, the achievements of the Ibero-American higher education systems do not seem to be on par with the current economic heft or the long scholarly tradition of these countries.  Compared to the OECD countries and the emerging economies in South-East Asia, the Ibero-American systems are way behind in terms of program quality and research output, suffer from relatively lower levels of public funding, and are characterized by inadequate governance.

Research funding in Latin America ranges from 0.3 to 1 percent of GDP, while the Nordic countries invest between 3 and 4 percent of their GDP.  In terms of governance, universities in the Ibero-American region, especially the public ones, are subject to the influence of interest groups resistant to change, suffer high levels of academic in-breeding, and are constrained by rigid and bureaucratic administrative systems.  What are the concrete results of these differences?

Latin America represents 8.5 percent of the world population and produces 8.7 percent of the planet’s GDP, while its universities account for only 2.2 percent of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking, less than 1.5 percent of the top 400 in the Times Higher Education ranking, and 2.6 percent of the top 500 universities in the Leiden ranking that focuses on publications and their impact.  The poor performance of large countries such as Brazil and Mexico—the sixth and tenth economies of the world, respectively—is particularly striking in contrast with the impressive results of smaller countries like the Netherlands, that has four universities in the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking, or Israel with three universities. The tiny territory of Hong Kong places as many universities in the Shanghai ranking as the Brazilian giant!

In Europe, the two Ibero-American countries, Spain and Portugal, also fail to achieve good outcomes.  A recent study commissioned by the Spanish government and undertaken by a group of distinguished academics deplores the absence of Spanish universities of excellence and the low scientific production of the country.  Not one Spanish or Portuguese university appears among the top 200 in the Shanghai ranking, in contrast with large European countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany, and even smaller nations like Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.

For the situation to change for the better in the Ibero-American countries, two key factors appear to be missing.  First, each of these countries needs to elaborate a comprehensive and audacious national vision of the future role of higher education, translating that vision into a strategic plan with adequate investment and spelling out the concrete reforms and actions needed for its implementation.

Second, Ibero-American nations need to build their capacity to design and implement deep and consensual reforms with significant increases in public spending for higher education and research while modernizing governance structures and administrative processes.  To be successful, these reforms must be designed and accepted as long-term state policies, rather than prepared and identified as the proposal of a specific government and limited by the typically short electoral horizon.  It would make such a difference if the Ibero-American countries would show as much enthusiasm for the transformation of their higher education system as for the results of their national soccer teams!

This blog entry was first published by Inside Higher Education on 11 January 2015

A report published last year in the United Kingdom described the radical changes affecting tertiary education in many parts of the world today as an ‘avalanche’. But the rupture factors that are transforming the tertiary education landscape are not that recent. I believe that the avalanche started eleven years ago, when Shanghai Jiao Tong University published the first Academic Ranking of World Universities, widely known today as the famous—some would rather say infamous—Shanghai ranking.

For the first time, all over the world, university leaders, policy-makers, employers, students and the public were provided with a hit parade of ‘world-class universities’.

Notwithstanding their methodological limitations, the Shanghai ranking and the various international rankings that have followed (Times Higher Education, Leiden University, QS, Webometrics, Taiwan HEEACT’s ranking of scientific papers, etc.), have put the relative performance of universities at the center of public debates, and even in the realm of political priorities in some countries.

For example, when Vladimir Putin was reelected as president of the Russian Federation in 2012, he declared in his first official speech that he wanted to see at least five Russian universities in the global top 50 within five years. Sure enough, the Minister of Education announced a new Excellence Initiative within a few months, following the example of countries such as France, Germany, South Korea and China, which have attempted to boost the standing of their elite universities through substantial additional resources.

In 1975, the Nigerian writer Nkem Nwankwo published a satirical novel entitled My Mercedes is Bigger Than Yours. Its title is an apt analogy for what university vice chancellors/presidents/rectors are going through today.

They are under constant pressure to prove that their university is doing everything possible to progress in the global ranking. While this can sometimes have a positive effect if it helps tertiary education institutions focus on improving further what they are good at, it can also induce obsessive behaviors and push them in the wrong direction.

For instance, some universities have appointed a ‘ranking officer’ to guide them in playing to the league tables. The global race to recruit top scientists and academics has led to bidding wars for talent in some cases. Perhaps most preoccupying is the mission drift resulting from giving undue priority to research and publications in prestigious journals, often at the expense of excellence and relevance in teaching and learning.

Excessive attention to the development of world-class universities as a source of national prestige can also have adverse consequences in terms of system-wide tertiary education policies, ranging from raising unreasonable expectations of a rapid rise in the rankings to creating dangerous distortions in resource allocation in favor of a few flagship institutions, to the detriment of the overall tertiary education system when additional resources are not available.

These unhealthy developments raise questions about the significance and contributions of world-class universities. To make an architectural analogy, is the tallest building of any country representative of housing conditions in that country? Is looking at the position of each university the most appropriate way of assessing the overall performance, utility and health of tertiary education systems?

For instance, does the strength of the US tertiary education system come essentially from the global dominance of the Ivy League universities? Or must we acknowledge and assess the importance of other features, such as the large community college sub-sector, the federal student aid program, a long tradition of outreach and retention programs, which are vital components in the tertiary education sector for promoting equal education opportunities and training the workforce that the US economy needs?

Defining academic excellence principally in reference to the position of universities in the global rankings is misleading and potentially dangerous in that it can distract attention from the priority areas of genuine impact.

When research output becomes the main yardstick for measuring the performance of tertiary education, other equally vital goals, such as learning quality, equality of opportunities, and the contribution of tertiary education institutions to local development, are at risk of being neglected.

The growing debate on measuring learning outcomes at the tertiary education level is testimony to the recognition that excellence is not only about achieving outstanding results with competitively selected outstanding students, but ought perhaps to be also measured in terms of the added value achieved by institutions in addressing the specific learning needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

In conclusion, the hype surrounding world-class institutions must be tempered to allow recognition of the contributions of the entire tertiary education system in promoting the most useful, most efficient, and highest quality opportunities that it can offer.

At the end of the day, world-class systems are not those that can boast the largest number of highly ranked universities. They are, instead, those that manage to develop and sustain a wide range of good quality and well articulated tertiary education institutions with distinctive missions, able to meet collectively the great variety of individual, community and national needs that characterize dynamic economies and healthy societies.

This article was originally published on the British website wonkhe on 9 July 2014. 

The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore.

Ferdinand Magellan (1520)

 For several decades, traditional human capital analysis challenged the need for public support of higher education on the grounds that graduates captured important private benefits—notably higher salaries and lower unemployment—that should not be subsidized by taxpayers.  Many multilateral and bilateral donor agencies, influenced by this argument, focused their support on basic education rather than investing in the expansion and improvement of higher education systems in developing countries.

In the 1990s, however, a growing body of research demonstrated the need to go beyond rate-of-return analysis to measure the value of higher education as an important pillar of sustainable development.  By focusing primarily on the private returns of government spending, rate-of-return analysis fails to capture broad social benefits accruing to society, that are important to recognize and measure.  These include research externalities, entrepreneurship, job creation, good economic and political governance, and the positive effects that a highly educated cadre of workers has on a nation’s health and social fabric.

Building on these findings, the path breaking 2000 report entitled Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise called for scaling up investment in higher education and research, as a key pillar to equip developing countries with the knowledge and qualified manpower needed to fight poverty and accelerate economic growth.  Written by a distinguished group of independent experts with financial support from several donor agencies, the report had an important impact at three levels.  First, it helped turn around donor policies in favor of greater attention to higher education in partner countries.  Second, it unleashed many positive reform initiatives in the developing countries themselves.  Third it paved the way for increased South-South networking and collaborative activities.

Almost fifteen years later, the world of higher education has changed significantly.  Developing countries have seen tremendous enrollment growth, especially in the private sector.  In Europe, the Bologna process has led to the creation of a “higher education space” facilitating the circulation of students and academics.  Asian nations have been at the forefront of efforts to place higher education at the center of their economic development strategies.

Higher education finds itself at another crossroad today, as national systems seem to be pulled in several directions by a combination of factors bringing about both opportunities and challenges at the same time.  The forces exercising new pressures on higher education can be divided into three groups: crisis factors, stimulation factors, and rupture factors.

The crisis factors are the direct results of the economic and financial crisis that started in 2008.  Many governments have significantly cut their higher education budget while, at the same time, households have fewer resources to allocate to education expenditures.  Furthermore, in many countries, the slowing down of the economy has led to rising graduate unemployment.

Compounding these elements of crisis are rupture factors such as those pointed out in a 2013 report proposing the image of “an avalanche” to describe the radical changes affecting how higher education institutions will be conducting their teaching and research activities in the future.  Among these rupture factors are (i) technological innovations such as flipped classrooms and other strategies for more interactive learning, (ii) mass online open courses (MOOCS) reaching hundred of thousands of students all over the world, (iii) increased competition from for-profit and corporate universities that provide professional qualifications closely linked to labor market needs, and (iv) new accountability modalities like the global rankings, that allow for different kinds of comparisons of the performance of universities across all continents.

Finally, higher education institutions are exposed to stimulation factors in the few countries that, notwithstanding the financial crisis, have continued to give priority to the development of their knowledge economy by protecting their higher education budget.  Several governments have even launched “excellence initiatives” translating into a large influx of additional resources for their nation’s leading universities—for example China, Denmark, France, Germany, Russia and South Korea—, often under the influence of the global rankings.

How these three sets of factors play out in each country determines the new “perils” and “promises” likely to shape the development of higher education in the years to come.

 

This article was first published in the Bulletin (Issue 182, July 2014), the magazine of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).

www.acu.ac.uk

Guest blogger Laura Howard, EAIE vice-president

At the October 2013 Conference of the Americas on internationalization (CAIE), the audience listening to the plenary moderated by Francisco Marmolejo, Coordinator of Higher Education at the World Bank, was intrigued when Jamil Salmi, specialist in higher education, began his answer to the question of why Latin American universities are not well represented in rankings by talking about football.

So what is the connection?

Salmi pointed out that the world’s top football teams have international players. Many also have international coaches or managers (Ancelotti in Real Madrid, Mourinho in Chelsea), even in the case of the national selection of some countries (Capello as the England coach). In their search for the best players, and for the right trainer, they look beyond their own backyard.

In Latin American universities, however, it is seldom the case that a university is led by a rector/president from another country – in some cases it is even expressly prohibited by law. This reflects a mindset that does not include a global perspective and therefore does not consider international candidates. It asks for a change of attitude, the willingness to look beyond national borders in the search for quality and excellence, to find the person with the right skill set. And this need is not limited to Latin America. This is not to say, by any means, that excellent candidates cannot be found on home ground. However, a university that appoints a rector from another country is giving a clear signal that it is embracing internationalisation, going beyond the search for international students and academic staff right to the institution’s strategic centre, preparing itself internally for change. This comment brought to mind two thoughts:

The International Relations Office: the Messi and the Torres of the university

The first one concerns an issue that has been discussed by many EAIE members over the years. The International Relations Offices of our universities are often home to international staff, usually in a much higher percentage than in other areas of university administration and management. It would be interesting to explore and attempt to measure the specific contribution made by these professionals to the internationalisation process of their universities. They are the international players in our teams: the Messi and the Torres. And the added value they provide can serve as an example, as many of their skills would be transferrable to other aspects of university administration in an institution that embraces comprehensive internationalisation.

Mobility in football vs. higher education

The second concerns another advantage enjoyed by football teams – the ease with which international players can cross borders. Entry visas do not appear to be an issue when a team wants to sign up a new international player; they often enjoy special fiscal privileges and in some cases even citizenship to the country which wants them on their team is granted. Yet in the field of education, most higher education institutions struggle to get the necessary support for a coherent inter-ministerial policy which facilitates the entry of international students and staff – who as well as being a source of finance can contribute to the internationalisation process, and can help to improve the institution’s place in the rankings.

It seems that the internationalisation of football is of greater strategic importance in many countries than the internationalisation of higher education. Lots of food for thought. What is the situation in your country?

PS.  Update from Jamil Salmi: at the 2014 soccer world cup in Brazil, half of the 32 competing teams have a foreign coach…

PS2. This blog was first posted on the EAIE website on 28 October 2013.

A 2013 report published in the United Kingdom proposed the image of “an avalanche” to describe the radical changes affecting tertiary education in many parts of the world (Barber, M., Donnelly, K., and S. Rizvi, 2013).  Indeed, a growing number of rupture factors are at play in transforming the ecosystem in which tertiary education institutions are operating, drastically influencing how they perform their teaching and research functions.  Among these rupture factors are technological innovations such as flipped classrooms for interactive learning, mass online open courses (MOOCS) reaching hundred of thousands of students all over the world, new forms of competition from for-profit and corporate universities that provide professional qualifications closely linked to labor market needs, and new accountability modalities like the global rankings, which allow to measure and compare the performance of universities across all continents.

Despite their methodological weaknesses, the rankings are the principal tool that has helped identify the most outstanding universities in the world with objective criteria, and that has allowed to identify the main factors that explain their success. Governance, in particular, has come out as one of the key determinants of high performance universities.

In the past decade, many countries have undertaken significant reforms to modernize the regulatory framework in which their tertiary education institutions operate, moving from a centralized control model to a decentralized system where universities enjoy substantial autonomy. Autonomous universities are characterized by the existence of an independent board with a majority of representatives of external stakeholders, professional criteria and procedures for the selection of the leadership team, and flexible human resource rules and policies for the recruitment and retention of staff and the determination of salaries.

However, universities in the Ibero-American world are not at the forefront of these reforms, quite the opposite. They tend to suffer from serious limitations because of their populist traditions, characterized by the democratic election of university presidents or rectors by the entire academic community, high levels of inbreeding, and a lack of international outlook, as can be seen in Spain and most of Latin America.

In the Spanish case, the absence of internationally recognized universities and the low scientific output of the country is as source of concern, as pointed out by a recent study prepared by a group of leading academics at the request of the Spanish government. No Spanish university appears among the top 200 universities in the world in the latest Shanghai ranking of Shanghai, while other large European countries such as the UK, France or Germany or even small economies such as Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden have a strong presence in the group of top universities.

Of particular importance in improving the Spanish public university system is the need for reforming the composition and role of the governing bodies as well as the selection process of rectors and deans. The reality is that the current governance model supports the collective decision-making process that imposes the immediate interests of stakeholders over the academic excellence that society needs … the processes are always too long, complex and riddled with bureaucracy and inefficiencies (Report of the Expert Committee on the Reform of the Spanish University System, 2013).

In the second case, although Latin America has 8.5% of the world’s population and produces 8.7% of global GDP, its universities represent only 2.2% of the top 500 in the Shanghai ranking, less than 1.5% of the top 400 in the Times Higher Education rankings, and 2.6% of the top 500 universities in the bibliometric ranking of Leiden. The performance of Brazil and Mexico (respectively sixth and fourteenth economies in the world) compares poorly with the impressive achievements of small countries like Israel, with three universities among the top hundred in the world in the Shanghai ranking, or Netherlands with two universities. In both cases, these modest results can be attributed to the lack of high-quality leadership, internal politics and a populist platform that does not leave room for in-depth reforms .

Recently, the Prime Minister of the Canadian province of Ontario traveled to Minnesota and gave a speech in which he observed that “in today’s world all countries are alike, you can borrow your capital you can copy technology, you can buy raw materials. There is only one thing left to make a difference and that is talent”. This belief is clearly reflected in the priority that the dynamic of nations of East Asia and Scandinavia have given to the development of its education system at all levels. By contrast, Spain and most Latin American countries have not yet managed to put human resources at the center of their efforts for economic growth and social transformation. The present economic and financial crisis makes it more difficult to look to the long term investment required in higher education.

In a recent article entitled “let’s go Denmark”, the UK weekly magazine The Economist (2013) analyzed the strength of the political culture in the Scandinavian countries. A strong tradition of negotiated compromises, coupled with the ability to undertake audacious change at the same time, has allowed these nations to evolve smoothly into dynamic knowledge-based economies without eroding their social fabric characterized by a high degree of cohesion and inclusion.  In the same vein, being able to undertake reforms consensually designed and accepted as long-term State policies, rather than as the program of a given government driven by short-term electoral considerations, may be the biggest challenge in most Ibero-American countries where there is little tradition of bi-partisan decision-making.
Note: This text was initially posted on the Inside Higher Education blog at http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/world-view/governance-challenge-ibero-american-universities