Philip Altbach and Jamil Salmi

Latin America (along with Africa) is the continent with the fewest top quality research-intensive universities. No Latin American university is found in the top 100, and relatively few Latin American scholars and scientists are among the most highly cited academics. Latin America represents 8.5 percent of the world population and produces 8.7 percent of the planet’s GDP, but its universities account for only 1.6 percent of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking and less than 1.5 percent of the top 400 in the Times Higher Education ranking. This is a serious deficiency if the continent wants to produce quality research and innovation—and share in the science-driven progress of the 21st century, especially in the present times of pandemic.

            One of the main reasons is the underperformance of the great public universities that emerged from the “Cordoba higher education revolution” of 1918. It is worth examining why this is the case as a prerequisite to improvement.

The Ideals and Realities of the “Cordoba” Universities

The Cordoba Revolution, started in Argentina in 1918 by students eager to democratize and modernize the university, led to the development of large public comprehensive universities throughout the continent and cemented the model of public higher education up to the present, making change very difficult. At the risk of oversimplifying, the Cordoba principles can be summarized in the following way. Universities have an important role to play, educating students who can participate in nation-building and providing research and service to contribute to national development efforts. With the ideal of providing equal access, universities do not charge tuition and generally admit students based on transparent and common criteria—either secondary school completion or competitive university entrance examinations. As a protection from authoritarian regimes, universities should be autonomous—free of direct government control, with academic freedom guaranteed, but at the same time funded by the state. Universities should be internally governed democratically—including faculty, students, and sometimes administrative personnel involved in decision making, and electing key academic leaders.

Throughout Latin America, public universities influenced by the Cordoba model came to dominate academe and remain the key institutions today, largely unchanged in the past century. Even with massification, the growth of the private sector (in many Latin American countries, more than half the enrolments are in private higher education), and considerable institutional diversification, the “Cordoba universities” remain the gold standard. Several have become mega-universities, and many are the most prominent producers of locally relevant research in the country. For example, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the largest in the region, has 350,000 students (some in affiliated secondary schools). The University of Buenos Aires (UBA) enrolls 309,000 students.

The situation has been further exacerbated by low levels of public funding for higher education in most Latin American countries, lack of long-term continuity in national higher education policies due to political instability, and sometimes negative views towards the scientific mission of universities, as illustrated by the adversary policies of the Bolsonaro administration in Brazil.

The Governance Challenges of the Cordoba Universities

The case of the University of São Paulo, Brazil’s top university, illustrates well the governance limitations of many public universities in Latin America, unable to evolve rapidly with the flexibility characterizing flagship institutions elsewhere. Even though it has the highest number of top-rated graduate programs in the country, annually produces more PhD graduates than any U.S. university, produces pertinent research for the country, and is the highest-financed public university in Latin America, its ability to manage its resources is severely constrained by rigid civil service regulations. It has few linkages with the international research community—only 3 percent of its graduate students are from outside Brazil, and the majority of professors are USP graduates themselves.

The key missing element is the absence of a vision of excellence to challenge the status quo and transform the university, reinforced by a system of democratic election of university leaders, which promotes clientelism and frequent turnover of leaders, a large internal university council that makes the decision-making process unwieldy, and an egalitarian academic culture that frowns upon recognizing and rewarding outstanding researchers and teachers. In Brazil as in many countries in the LAC region, the lack of strategic ambition for the development of higher education can often be observed as much at the national government level as among the university leadership.

 What Could Be Done

The transformation of Latin America’s public universities would, without doubt, require a second “Cordoba revolution,” driven by a bold vision from the academic community, and substantial support and resources from government. This would involve the following changes:

  • Substantial increases in public funding. Today, research funding is between 0.3 and 1% of annual GDP, way below the levels of investment in Nordic countries and East Asian nations.
  • A continuous focus on national service and the Sustainable Development Goals. One of the strengths of the traditional “Cordoba universities” has been their commitment to national and social development. It is essential to retain this tradition and vision.
  • A modern governance setup that allows for the professional selection of university leaders, internationally—a practice that, ironically, is acceptable when it comes to choosing the trainer of the national soccer team but is viewed as sacrilegious for universities. Also, universities are complex institutions that require a balance of professional and academic management and leadership.
  • Autonomy and academic freedom, coupled with accountability to the government—the main funding source—and to society.
  • Manageable size. Most world-class universities have enrollments of 40,000 students or fewer—and have a fairly comprehensive array of academic programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
  • Interdisciplinarity. Flagship universities have structures and incentives that encourage and enable teaching and research across disciplines. This is notably lacking in many Latin American universities.
  • Internationalization. Latin American universities generally lag behind their global peers in international connections, collaborative scholarship and research, and mobility. All aspects of internationalization are important, including increased attention to the use of English for international mobility and collaborative research , as long as it remains the main medium of global science and scholarship.

Our argument is not an “academic” exercise but an invitation to governments and institutional leaders to think about the development role of their universities in the 21st century.  Latin America deserves to have first-rate universities that can engage with global science through leading-edge fundamental and applied research, train ethically minded citizens and professionals, and contribute to the sustainable development of LAC societies. One thing is clear—the model of the traditional “Cordoba universities,” however innovative and successful a century ago, is no longer adequate and should be revisited. Another revolution is needed—this time not a common template as Cordoba proposed— but rather in the form of innovative ideas and courageous initiatives suited to each country’s national needs and aspirations.


This blog originally appeared as an article in University World News and International Higher Education. Philip G. Altbach is Research Professor and Distinguished Fellow, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US. Jamil Salmi is a global tertiary education expert, emeritus professor of higher education policy at Diego Portales University, Chile, and research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US.

Today, 20 February 2036, is my granddaughter Sofia’s 15th birthday. Born during the Covid-19 crisis which upturned our world in more than one way, she lives in Melbourne while I am based in Berlin. Since she is about to finish high school this year, I invite her to join me on a virtual visit of the Museum of 20th Century Universities to celebrate her special day.

I pull on my iGlasses and jump into my favorite museum metaverse app. We meet in the lobby of the virtual museum. VR technology has improved so much, it feels like we are actually in the same room. My granddaughter’s avatar is young Marie Curie, the only female scientist to ever win the Nobel Prize twice, with the gaunt look of the famished student who would faint because she was too absorbed in study to eat. Mine looks like Einstein when he taught at Princeton, with the iconic wild bushy hair.

We start with the Grand Lecture Hall, an impressive amphitheater than can seat 800 people. An older white male professor is droning on for a full hour to an audience of bored and distracted students. We move quickly to the next room, a large library full of paper books and journals that students pore over for hours on at their individual reading desks. In the faculty building, rows of offices where the professors write articles behind closed doors, well hidden from the students.

The Museum was designed and coded by a community of artists, educators and historians who wanted to recreate the experience of traditional universities as they operated in the past. It provides a memorial to connect and share with others from all over the world in VR. The virtual museum contains a cross section of the types of buildings that hosted universities and the main activities that went on inside them until the turn of the century. Together we can discover what this space meant to our parents who did not have other options for studying and expanding their intellectual horizons than confining themselves in these castles of knowledge and towers of learning for several consecutive years. Welcome to this immersive historical showcase. Step into a classroom or a library, surround yourself with the sounds and experience of a student cafeteria or dormitory, as if you were right there and then.

Next, we enter the Gallery of Numbers. I explain to Sofia how everything had to be counted, measured and ranked in the old days. What’s your Gaokao or SAT score? How high is your GPA? How did you perform at the math Olympics or the Grande École entrance competition? What is the H-index of your professor? How many places did your University gain in the global, national and specialized rankings? She might find it hard to believe that universities did not select students on the basis of their life project or academic passions, but focused on dissected high school grades and valued test scores.

We now switch to the Pavilion of Exclusion, a sobering monument to the stark inequalities that characterized many institutions back then. We see universities for whites only, by law, design or circumstance; science and technology institutes with hardly any women; colleges without indigenous or special needs students. In a 3-D replica of Room 104 in Carnegie Hall at the University of Oklahoma in 1948, we see George McLaurin, the sole African American student on a campus of 12,174. He is sitting in a closet, the spot he was forced to occupy, separate from his white peers, after winning a legal battle to get admitted. We learn about Ivy League institutions with legacy admission practices favoring the sons of rich businessmen who made a big donation to their alma mater at the same time that “affirmative action” was disparaged and legally challenged for giving unfair advantage to minority students.  

Next comes the Building of Disciplines. All specializations are on display, from philology to finance to deep ocean technology. We can but wonder at the artificial distinction between the humanities and the sciences, observing how faculties and schools operated as silos within universities, and how the knowledge offered to students reflected the cultural biases of dominant nations and was completely out of phase with the complex nature of real-life challenges and the multidisciplinary competences needed to address them. We hear speeches of politicians arguing for increased funding for science and technology courses at the expense of the social sciences, sometimes defending the elimination of foreign language and the humanities. Sofia frowns when she sees that everyone followed a uniform set of courses towards the same degree, as if people learned at an equal pace and in a similar manner. “Imagine that they received dated degrees,” she exclaims, “instead of progressively building a blockchain qualifications portfolio throughout their working life!”

In the Pandemic Gazebo, we are reminded how the Covid-19 crisis triggered the coming of age of online education. Within a few weeks, sometimes only days, what was a hobby practiced by a few innovative instructors—often regarded as eccentric and less professional by their more traditional colleagues—became a mainstream platform for teaching and learning at universities worldwide, with extensive sharing of open educational resources. Sofia asks me: “Where are the students’ personal AI tutors”?

We finish with the Examinations Chamber. My granddaughter cannot stop gasping as we float through the holograms of anxious students immersed in writing high-stake competitive finals, under the vigilant watch of stern proctors ensuring that no knowledge sharing or cooperative work takes place. How different from today’s open-internet, continuous, collaborative and interactive assessment sessions!

As we are about to leave the Museum, my granddaughter’s avatar shakes her head and comments: “Seriously! Can you imagine that these people were restricted to studying at a single university at a time, instead of seamless cross-learning from multiple knowledge providers over their lifetime?” “I feel so lucky to live in this age of flexible and open education!”

Originally published in Orazbayeva, B., Meerman, A., Galan-Muros, V., Davey, T., and C. Plewa (Eds). The Future of Universities Thoughtbook: Universities during Times of Crisis. Amsterdam: University Industry Innovation Network.

Courtney Brown and Jamil Salmi

An Unprecedented Challenge

As country after country decrees partial or total lockdowns from the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of universities and colleges closing and switching to e-learning has soared. However, few of these institutions are well prepared for this sudden, disruptive move. A lot of scrambling and improvisation are occurring as administrators, instructors, and students struggle to implement broad-based online learning. The scale of the COVID-19 outbreak is unprecedented in the lives of nearly everyone involved.

As of April 9, more than a 1.5 million people had been infected worldwide – more than 150 times the number diagnosed with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) during that epidemic nearly 20 years ago. SARS emerged in China in November 2002. Within months, it had spread to 29 countries or territories in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. By the time the global outbreak was contained, the SARS virus had affected 8,096 people worldwide, killing 774.

During SARS’ peak, schools and universities in the three most affected areas of Asia – China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – were closed from one to several months. To compensate for these closures, some universities kept their students engaged by establishing or increasing their online presence. This required effective learning-management systems, videoconference facilities, and instructors experienced with e-learning.

Short-Term Effects

This time around, the rest of the world watched for nearly two months as China and a few East Asian countries and territories went into lockdown. Despite repeated warnings from the leader of the World Health Organization, few countries prepared for a possible pandemic. When it became clear COVID-19 was spreading rapidly on a global scale, governments suddenly – finally – showed alarm and began shutting down businesses, schools, and universities. Within a few weeks, about 20,000 higher education institutions had ceased normal operation and sent 200 million students home, with many switching to online classes after only a few days of preparation.

While these campus closures will likely help prevent the spread of the virus within higher education institutions, they have clearly forced colleges and universities to operate in unfamiliar ways and spend significant sums to shift their operations online. Higher education institutions all over the world have suspended international travel and exchange programs and put most research activities on hold. Many are struggling with difficult decisions about how to assess student learning, whether to postpone or cancel final exams, and how to recruit students for the next academic year – especially in countries where national end-of-high school exams have been scratched.

Nor has the move to online education been universally embraced. Argentina’s flagship university, Universidad de Buenos Aires, decided to postpone classes and rearrange the academic calendar rather than switch to online classes, deciding that only in-person courses can guarantee quality. Along the same lines, the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe announced that it would remain closed until further notice. The Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education suspended online education together with on-campus activities.

Students are also resisting the digital transition. In Tunisia, the main student union – students in other countries have a stronger say in their educations than do U.S. students – denounced the government’s decision to adopt online education during the COVID-19 crisis. The union labeled the move a discriminatory measure and called for a boycott of online platforms. Similarly, in Chile, students at the country’s main public institution, the University de Chile, and at the private Universidad San Sebastian have initiated online strikes. In the United Kingdom, more than 200,000 students have signed a petition demanding refunds of their tuition payments, essentially claiming that online instruction isn’t what they paid for.

Fairness Dimensions

While the disruptions caused by the pandemic affect both rich and poor countries and upend the lives of every societal group, students from vulnerable groups are hit especially hard. In wealthy societies such as the United States, where most residence halls were shut down – often abruptly, many students from low-income families faced major difficulties. They had problems finding off-campus housing on short notice, lost access to campus-based health care, struggled to pay unexpected living expenses, and felt unprepared for a sudden shift to online studies. In this context, community college students – who are more likely to be people of color, older, have lower family incomes, and care for dependents – are much more vulnerable than those attending four-year institutions. These challenges could lead to large numbers of dropouts by the end of the academic year and far fewer students enrolled in the fall. International students stranded far from home also face economic and emotional hardships.

In poorer countries, students from disadvantaged groups face even greater difficulty. In developing countries with limited internet access and low broadband capacity, opportunities for online learning are likely to be drastically constrained, especially in rural areas. Many students from low-income households – sometimes even faculty members – lack laptops or tablet computers. In addition to digital-divide challenges, colleges and universities in poor nations will likely struggle to rapidly launch quality distance learning programs. Many lack experienced instructional designers, sufficient educational resources, an adequate grasp of the specifics and nuances of online education, and strong institutional capacity to deliver it. The African University Association already has signaled that, among the 700 universities operating in Sub-Saharan Africa, very few are well prepared and sufficiently equipped to deliver their programs online.

In addition, universities in the developing world will need to arrange for alternative learning assessments and exams, which in turn will likely disrupt preparations for next year’s admissions. Students from disadvantaged groups, who often have less access to relevant information, may be affected more by these developments.

Governments Stepping In

It is difficult, at this early stage of the pandemic, to have a comprehensive view of national programs adopted by governments to support affected colleges and universities. Initial indications show the following types of measures are needed at the national level: 1) financial stimulus packages and student loan moratoria, 2) flexibility in quality assurance requirements, and 3) capacity-building initiatives to ease the transition to online learning.

A few countries – Australia, Denmark, Germany, Taiwan, and the United States for instance – already have approved economic rescue packages that include support for higher education. This will help public colleges and universities weather the crisis by protecting the employment of most administrative and academic staff, boosting student welfare, and helping to pay for the technology that can enable a rapid transition to online education. Also, the Canadian and U.S. governments called for a halt to all student loan repayments for the next six months. This maneuver will provide welcome relief to unemployed graduates and those with limited incomes. Many governments also are providing universities with targeted research funding to help identify effective medicines to treat COVID-19 patients and to develop a vaccine. The Nordic countries are funding research in the social sciences to study and mitigate the social consequences of the pandemic.

The second type of national-level interventions needed are those that allow for greater flexibility in the application of quality assurance criteria. Some examples: Suspending deadlines for accreditation and program registration processes, postponing accreditation visits – or switching to “virtual visits” – because of university closures or travel restrictions, and lifting requirements concerning online education. Indeed, many countries have strict regulations regarding online education. A few even impose additional constraints reflecting a negative perception of distance learning. When Peru’s current higher education law was passed in 2014, for example, it specifically disqualified professors who had obtained their doctoral degrees through online education from becoming faculty deans.

By contrast, oversight bodies in many countries are now relaxing their quality assurance criteria to support the rapid transition to online education. Some have issued recommendations to guide colleges and universities, but the general trend has been to issue blanket approvals of the new approaches and delegate responsibility for establishing quality online programs to the higher education institutions themselves. The governors of several U.S. states – Maine’s Janet Mills among the first – have issued executive orders to release funds without adhering to the usual review requirements as part of an effort to encourage online training of health specialists and other workers deemed essential during the pandemic.

The third type of interventions needed involve capacity building to deliver online education – steps that complement the flexible decision-making described earlier. The government of Ghana, notably, has taken the lead in organizing training activities to support universities in their move to online education, in partnership with the United Kingdom’s Open University.  

Countries also must strengthen broadband capacity to facilitate internet access for all students. This can be done by providing subsidized internet packages for university students and free connections to national research networks for all universities. In poorer countries, there is a great need, in addition, for reinforcing campus network infrastructure. These interventions can have positive effects, but only if governments stop enforcing internet shutdowns and censorship, a growing practice to muzzle political dissent. Governments must also guarantee continuity in power supplies, another major challenge faced by the higher education sector in several countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Institutional Policies

The most urgent task for many colleges and universities has been to alleviate the economic hardships experienced by students from low-income families. To reduce the digital divide between rich and poor students, some institutions have donated or loaned out devices to students and offered them internet bundles to provide access to online resources. Others have been able to provide emergency financial assistance and help students find alternate housing, including host homes.

To ease the transition to online education, one priority has been to offer crash courses – to academics and students alike – in how to use digital platforms and how to apply effective techniques for online learning. Institutions with fully functional teaching and learning services have found themselves better prepared to support their entire academic community in this transition. Colleges and universities should also look for opportunities to reach out to less-prepared institutions in their orbit and create collaborative platforms for sharing what they learn.

Based on testimonies coming from some of the colleges and universities struggling with the sudden shift to online education, three considerations are urgently important for institutions engaged in this transition. First, they must align learning-assessment procedures and criteria with the new online curricular and pedagogical approaches. Several colleges and universities already have moved to a pass/fail approach, eliminating grades for the rest of this academic year. Designing online assessment methods to fit these emerging modes of teaching and learning will take significant effort, but it will help to assure the quality of learning and validity of final assessments.

Second, institutions must establish, increase, or strengthen academic and psychological supports for today’s students. This effort will become ever more crucial as growing numbers of students struggle to adjust to new teaching and learning approaches – not to mention their fears and concerns about the pandemic. Careful reliance on data and predictive analytics can help support staff identify struggling students early on and can also help pinpoint the areas in which these students might require extra support.

Third, all higher education institutions must factor this crisis into their strategic planning, undertaking thorough risk assessments and mitigation processes to anticipate the medium- and long-term consequences of the pandemic – including the expected economic recession. For higher education institutions in poorer countries, the COVID-19 crisis is a moment to activate a few deep partnerships with universities in other countries that are willing to share their resources and experience in this time of emergency, especially in the areas of digital education and collaborative online research.  South-South partnerships with universities and other relevant actors can be particularly rewarding, notably in the area of e-learning. In Africa, many universities could benefit from closer linkages with providers of online education in Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tunisia, widely recognized as leaders in this domain on the African continent.

Vultures and Angels: Support from Other Actors

The abrupt, broad-based transition to online education provoked by the pandemic has been a boon for education technology companies, a few of which have shamelessly taken advantage of the crisis to boost their prices or dump flawed products on the market. Fortunately, these companies appear to be a small minority. Many firms, from the education sector and beyond, have shown boundless generosity in support of the thousands of institutions and millions of students left stranded by the pandemic. Academics and students all over the world now have access to free courses in many languages. They can use digital platforms for virtual meetings and videoconferences. They can benefit from free, online tutoring programs. And they can use virtual labs for simulations and experiments. Some telecom companies have offered free or highly subsidized internet packages to students and academics and have exempted sites that contain open educational resources from data charges.

In all countries, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, the National and Regional Research and Education Networks have an important role to play in giving colleges and universities access to fast internet and collaborative networks. This follows the tradition of the Network Startup Resource Center, started in 1992 with a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, which has helped establish such networks in most parts of the world.

Since the beginning of the crisis, companies and philanthropists in many countries have donated money, computers, and tablets to help students adjust to new online learning approaches. In South Africa, a generous donor has just cleared the debts of 300 students at Walter Sisulu University who are expected to graduate this academic year.

Conclusion: The Likely Longer-Term Impact

Awed by their potentially disruptive character, the New York Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOCs,” referring to the explosion of the so-called Massive Open Online Courses and the growing perception that they could challenge traditional universities or even threaten their very existence. While this prediction proved overblown, one may wonder whether the rapid transition to online learning brought about by the COVID-19 crisis will ultimately transform colleges and universities into digital institutions. In any event, the COVID-19 pandemic is sure to bring about substantial changes in the way higher education institutions operate – in both the short and long term.

The resilience of modern universities has never have been tested as thoroughly as during the current crisis, but not all institutions are being affected in the same ways. The world’s top universities are unlikely to suffer adverse long-term consequences. As predicted by Phillip Altbach and Hans De Wit in a recent article, “… research universities and top-quality institutions that are globally and nationally recognized and have stable income streams, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and elite American private liberal arts colleges and similar institutions worldwide, will recover more rapidly and emerge relatively unscathed from the crisis.”

But for most higher education institutions, especially the private ones that are fully dependent on tuition fees, financial survival will be a serious challenge during the deep recession many economists predict. It’s realistic to expect many private colleges and universities to close their doors for good. Millions of students with limited resources could drop out of higher education altogether, or at least shift to more affordable public institutions. Colleges and universities with high proportions of foreign students also will be vulnerable to fluctuations in the demand.

Institutions would be well advised not to consider the COVID-19 pandemic as a once-in-a-lifetime crisis whose effects will disappear in a few months. Most colleges and universities failed to heed the lessons of the SARS epidemic. Hopefully, this crisis will serve as a wake-up call to reassess the vulnerabilities of the higher education sector and the challenges of living in a global and interdependent world. If anything, it has shown the importance of contingency planning and risk management, the benefits of supporting innovative delivery methods, and the need for flexibility in learning assessment and admissions requirements.

Will the COVID-19 crisis be remembered as a black-swan event that truly transformed higher education? It’s impossible to predict at this early stage. At the very least, the pandemic represents an ideal opportunity to experiment with novel ways of organizing and delivering the curriculum. Will universities embrace the potential of online education in a more systematic way? Will this crisis push colleges and universities to broadly adopt innovative approaches that have so far been embraced by only a handful of institutions and audacious educators? Will it herald the disappearance of high-stake exams, to be replaced with next-generation assessment methods and tools? To paraphrase the title of a remarkable book on curricular and teaching innovation, one of the most positive consequences of the COVID-19 crisis could be to transform the teaching and learning process with the purpose of “sparking curiosity, igniting passion, and unleashing genius.”

Finally, it is essential to acknowledge that achieving fairness in higher learning for racial and ethnic minorities and those from low-income families remains one of the biggest challenges. These students are likely to suffer most because of the COVID-19 crisis. The next six months will be a critical test of the capacity of the international community, national governments, and higher education institutions to act swiftly and effectively in order to avoid a growing gap between rich and poor countries, between well-endowed and resource-limited institutions, and among the students themselves. It will be crucial to avoid choices that reinforce or deepen existing disparities. Instead, we must search together for solutions that create opportunity for all, especially people who have faced barriers to the economic success and social mobility that higher learning can bring. In a time of growing distrust towards evidence-based expertise, it will be equally critical to implement consensus-based solutions that transcend ideologies and reflect scientific results.

This blog was originally published on the Lumina Foundation site.

The New Equity Study

A 2018 study sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, All Around The World, reviewed the policy commitments of national governments to promote equal opportunities in access and success in higher education.  The study found that, with the exception of a few fragile states recovering from a natural catastrophe or a major political crisis, equity is a priority theme in the higher education discourse of most governments. 

Leading up to this year’s World Access to Higher Education Day (26 November 2019), we undertook a follow-up study to explore which equity promotion policies seem most successful, and to assess under what circumstances some policies work better than others.  The new study focused on a small sample of countries from all corners of the planet: Australia, Austria, Colombia, South Africa and Vietnam.

The country case studies revealed the following strengths:

  • Australia is one of the most advanced countries in terms of comprehensive equity policies;
  • Austria is a leader when it comes to gender policies and support for refugees;
  • Colombia has been a pioneer in student loans and retention policies;
  • South Africa is making strides in addressing long-lasting inequalities from years of apartheid; and
  • Vietnam attends many equity target groups but needs to invest more public resources to implement its comprehensive equity plan.

Key Findings at the National Level

We found that there is a dearth of rigorous impact studies evaluating equity policies in a rigorous manner.  We also concluded that there is insufficient relevant data to measure disparities and monitor the effects and consequences of equity policies. 

The country studies do confirm one of the major findings of the 2018 Lumina study: to achieve strong equity results there needs to be a high degree of alignment among leadership goals, policy goals, policy instruments, and allocated resources. It is particularly crucial to have enough resources to implement the national equity agenda effectively. 

The country experiences also showed us that there is essential to have continuity in equity policies.  Through the case studies we saw how politics often get in the way of sound policies.  To improve access and success for under-represented groups in the long run, it is important to stay the course and carry on with both financial and non-monetary equity policies in a consistent way, independently of who is in government. 

Additionally, we noted that Austria is the only country surveyed with equity promotion policies influenced and strengthened by supranational considerations. The Bologna process and the social dimension agenda promoted by the European Commission have both strengthened Austria’s equity agenda in higher education.

Finally, the case studies confirm the interaction of four structural elements that strongly influence the scope and magnitude of disparities in higher education:

  • The secondary education system and the extent of streaming between general education and vocational training within high schools,
  • The level of selectivity in the admission policies of universities,
  • The degree of institutional differentiation of higher education systems, and
  • The availability of financial aid for students from disadvantaged groups. 

Key Findings at the Institutional Level

In the five case studies, we also reviewed institutional approaches and experiences to promoting access and success for under-served students.  A survey of several universities in each country has revealed a number of good practices worth reporting. 

  • Institutions should have a clear strategy that can either take the form of a stand-alone document or be embedded in the institutional strategic plan.  The University of Wollongong in Australia and Uniminuto in Colombia are good examples of this. Both have put a strong emphasis on equity as part of their core mission. 
  • Having a department responsible for all equity-related activities under the direct authority of an institutional leader is also an important factor of success. 
  • In low- and middle-income countries, innovative partnerships between higher education institutions, local authorities, and local businesses can generate additional resources to finance scholarships for needy student. 
  • Higher education institutions—and even governments—can share and model successful policies and programs initiated by individual universities.  This happened, for example, with the successful mentorship program set up by the Universidad del Valle in Colombia.
  • In addition to ensuring greater access, elite public or private universities that want to be more inclusive should strive to provide a welcoming environment for first-generation students, who often feel uncomfortable within an elitist institutional culture.

Next Steps

Moving forward, it will be important to put emphasis on four aspects:

  • impact studies to measure which interventions and combinations of interventions are most effective; 
  • strong information systems to identify all equity groups and measure their progress in terms of access and graduation;
  • identification and evaluation of effective policies to improve gender balance in STEM institutions and programs, in the top academic positions, and in university leadership functions.
  • definition of the needs of students with disability, provision of sufficient resources, and empowerment of higher education institutions to place this dimension much higher on their equity agenda.

Post-truth: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.  Oxford Dictionary

“Evidence-based” and “Science-based”: two expressions explicitly prohibited in official budget documents of the Federal government by President Trump in 2018

Scholars and experts are aware of the limits of their knowledge, as doubt is part of scientific reasoning. As the cognitive bias known in psychology as the Dunning-Kruger Effect shows, for scientists, “the more you know, the more likely you are to see how little you know”. The opposite is of course also true. The less you know, the less able you are to recognize how little you know, so the less likely you are to recognize your errors and shortcomings. Or, as Bertrand Russell said: “the whole problem of the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

Unfortunately, the world seems to be increasingly populated by “fools and fanatics”. In a time of blogging, tweeting and instant messages, everybody’s views are assumed to be equally valid and worth considering. Thus, we experience constant “information war”, with the proliferation of fake news, hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and, last but not least, alternative facts. As we know, the latter expression was originally coined by President Trump’s spokesperson after the release of the photos comparing the turnout at his Inauguration in January 2017 with Obama’s in January 2009.

Conspiracy theories have always existed. Conspiracy thinking arises when people faced with complex issues choose to believe a simple—but false—explanation of whom to blame. Often, conspiracy theories are more amusing than the honest, but often complicated truth. But today’s social media, with their algorithms based on artificial intelligence, create “echo chambers” that play an important role in spreading false rumors. In addition, professional fake news writers and disseminators are flourishing and can often be manipulated by foreign interests, as Russian meddling in the US presidential election has shown. Thus, the realization that two-thirds of adults living in the United States are on Facebook and 45% get their main news from it, is a matter of deep concern.

These trends affect democracies in an adverse manner. Fewer people are interested in participating in democratic elections, either by voting or running for office. Faced with a maelstrom of fake news and contradictory information, voters are unsure of what to believe and make increasingly irrational decisions, following the exhortations of demagogues who appeal to their raw emotions rather than their reason. Misinformation undermines democracy and leads to dramatic policy shifts that may adversely affect the very people who have supported the policy changes. The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the negative vote in the peace referendum in Colombia and the election of President Trump are the most recent examples in that respect. One of the paradoxes of these situations, in the case of the United States, is that the measures taken by the Republican administration to curtail health care access and benefits are likely to affect, to a large extent, the voter base of the Grand Old Party.

Notwithstanding this post-truth context, World Class Universities (WCUs) still need to deal with pressing global challenges, such as climate change, migration, global epidemics, a turbulent world economy, financial instability, increased inequality, global trafficking and terrorism, to name only a few. They must also continue to assume their role model responsibility in the way they operate as institutions of higher learning. Unfortunately, the international rankings that identify which universities are in the top do not measure fundamental dimensions of the role of WCUs, such as the importance of instilling ethical principles, the ability to foster engaged learning experiences (critical thinking, connecting disciplines and applying knowledge to the real world), the need to be socially inclusive institutions, the extent to which research remains unbiased and intellectually independent from the political and business world that contributes to its funding, etc.

In a globalized, complex context, WCUs are facing growing risks. They are increasingly driven by the market and the never-ending search for additional funds, rather than by their own sense of higher purpose. Seen for a long time as a temple of knowledge where dedicated researchers are serving science, they have lost part of their standing. This has generated a decline in people’s trust in scholarly expertise.

Even more worrisome is the wariness that government authorities have shown towards universities. This has had two serious consequences. First, in several countries, top universities have experienced significantly reduced public funding. In the United States, for instance, under the dual influence of the financial crisis and the perception that universities are bastions of liberal thinkers, the Republican legislature in states as diverse as Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Virginia has cut down the annual budgetary allocation to the state’s flagship university to no more than 10% of its annual revenue. Second, from Hungary to Turkey to China and Russia, authoritarian rulers are imposing growing restrictions on academic freedom to their public universities.

World-Class Universities are increasingly under threat in the post-truth world. With global visibility comes global responsibility. WCUs all over the world should work together as a network for the public good. They must succeed in meeting international standards while being deeply committed to their local environment. As they engage in socially useful learning and relevant knowledge creation, they should also preserve a space where free debate and dissent are welcome. The “Ivory Tower” could thus morph into a “Beacon of Hope” and contribute to diminishing the inequalities and the frustration they generate at the local and national level, while contributing to a fairer and more sustainable planet.

In that perspective, we propose a code of conduct for WCUs in the form of five “Shanghai Principles”, to commemorate the place where this proposal was made for the first time. The Shanghai principles are defined as follows:

  • Inclusiveness. Academic excellence should become more inclusive rather than continuing to be exclusive as a result of unnecessary selection mechanisms. Following the example of Arizona State University and some of the top universities throughout the world that have a needs-blind admission policy, WCUs must find ways of welcoming an increasingly diverse student population by removing the financial and non-monetary barriers that prevent qualified applicants from vulnerable groups from accessing and succeeding in WCUs. Many studies have shown that diversity among students and staff improves the teaching and learning experience and fosters tolerance and open-mindedness. 
  • Ethics. WCUs should place a strong emphasis on ethical values and behaviors to promote honesty, tolerance and solidarity. For this purpose, it is not sufficient to design a compulsory course on ethics that all students are expected to take. WCUs should do much more to instill ethical principles in students and faculty and to ensure that socially responsible values are built into the curriculum. Positive values should permeate all academic programs and become part of the DNA of the institutional culture of WCUs.
  • Objectivity. An essential responsibility of WCUs is to promote critical thinking. Therefore, teaching, learning and research must be conducted in a scientific way, with great emphasis on objective methods of reasoning and inquiry. WCUs must champion honest communication about what can be legitimately claimed as truthful. Inside the university, it is important to reinstate the academic tradition of free and fair debate that has been undermined by relativism and political correctness. WCUs are well placed to offer a safe space for assessing different views but also to engage outside of the university in public debates on complex issues. To deal with the latter, multi-disciplinary perspectives are often needed and universities are one of the few places that have the means to provide the expertise, to nourish reflection, and to influence policies on the basis of facts and scientific evidence. As van der Zwaan put it, “In the future, the university may well derive its most important form of legitimacy from its visibility and leadership in society. Despite the fact that public discourse is showing less and less interest in complexity, tackling complex problems is one of the university’s key strengths”.
  • Relevance. Research undertaken by WCUs must address global challenges, including but not limited to food, health, energy, climate change, the environment and security. WCUs are very good at conducting excellent “blue sky” research but they should focus more on promoting research that solves real problems and addresses global challenges. When looking at the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2015, it is clear that WCUs can have a positive impact on almost every one of them.
  • Global Collaboration. The race to secure a higher position in the international rankings has pushed WCUs to compete with each other in a compulsive manner. Notwithstanding the competition exacerbated by the rankings, solidarity is a core value of university life. It is the essence of collegiality. Over the centuries, it has fostered the exchange of ideas, mobility of researchers and joint undertakings. The competition inherent in the rankings phenomenon should not come at the expense of collaboration among responsible universities. WCUs can equally promote excellence through cooperation and solidarity. WCUs should rather act as a community of institutions and scholars cooperating for the global good. In that way, they would be following the positive example of the Talloires Network, an international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of universities.

* This blog was written together with Pierre de Maret, emeritus president of the Free University of Brussels.  It is based on a chapter by the authors in the following upcoming book Wu, Y., Wang, Q., and Liu, N.C. (eds.) (forthcoming). World-Class Universities: Towards a Global Common Good and Seeking National and Institutional Contributions. Rotterdam: Brill Publishers.  A shorter version was posted on Inside Higher Education‘s world view.


“…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”.



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.



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 Egypt.  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 than 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  Also available in Arabic.