This article was written by Simon Marginson on the occasion of the appointment of a new Minister of Education in Australia. Simon Marginson is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. A shorter version of this article was first published on 6 February 2013 by The Australian.

The top global expert on higher education, the individual who knows more than anyone else about living breathing university systems, is Moroccan economist and former World Bank coordinator for tertiary education, Jamil Salmi.

It seems that Salmi has written reports for, and provided consultancy advice to, every second government across the world. Recently he has focused on a question preoccupying many countries, whether emerging from poverty, or wealthy and with established education systems: how to make a ‘World-Class University’ (WCU)?

As Salmi notes in a recent paper, many governments are most concerned to know whether their top universities are operating at the cutting edge of intellectual and scientific development.

The Australian government, which last October set itself the ambitious target of ten universities in the world’s top 100, has a direct interest in the WCU question.

In the current policy context, ‘World-Class Universities’ are not those that provide the best programs or educate the most diverse set of citizens.

WCUs are not necessarily the most intellectually creative or far-sighted institutions, and they are not the most socially equitable. Nor are they the institutions that best address the common problems of humanity.

WCUs are the institutions that pump out the most global science, attract and hold the top scientists, generate lucrative research applications for industry, and lead in the rankings. For better or worse, that is the present global standard.

So how do nations and universities make their WCUs, according to Salmi?

He identifies three essential elements in a WCU strategy, elements being put in place by dynamic higher education systems such as Singapore.

First, a high concentration of talented staff and students, sourced from anywhere in the world—the most crucial element.

Second, abundant resources from public and private sources, especially for research.

In rare cases where universities have risen quickly to WCU status, for example the Hong University of Science and Technology, mechanism one and two are combined. Governments concentrate resources for research in selected centres of excellence. This is also the principal strategy used by Germany in its program to establish a globally strong university system.

Third, governance that encourages vision, initiative, flexibility, responsiveness and continuous organizational learning. Autonomous university leaders and researchers that can apply resources quickly without being constrained by custom or regulation.

Salmi also notes a number of ‘accelerating factors’ that promote more rapid WCU development.

Using incentives to bring back high quality nationals working abroad. Extended intensive international benchmarking and recruitment.

The fostering of strong niches in emerging fields of research.

Support programs for young researchers, especially at post-doctoral stage, which is a highly productive part of the career cycle. Young researchers are a primary source of new lines of research. They cost less. Some stay and make a stellar long-term contribution

High quality innovations in teaching or the curriculum that demarcate the institution and build more productive links between teaching and research.

Salmi also remarks that successful institutions ‘maintain a sense of urgency in order to avoid complacency’. They continually monitor the environment and themselves. They root out dysfunctions. They keep nimble and stay humble.

So there you have it. All Canberra has to do to double our number of WCUs is cut the red tape, boost resources, fund centres of excellence on German or Chinese scale, throw its weight behind emerging talent, and persuade our universities to be humble. New Minister Chris Bowen should find all that a piece of cake!

 

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