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

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