Institutions around the world are pursuing recognition as “world class” universities. In many cases, establishing world-class universities has been incorporated into national development strategies. This week’s blog is part of an ongoing series addressing these initiatives and the errors and oversights often committed in the course of implementation. The previous blogs were “9 Common Errors of New World Class Universities” and “Consolidation Pitfalls.”

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 programs and resources of the merging institutions complement each other, thereby making it easy to 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 example of the Lausanne Polytechnic School which took over, as part of its upgrading strategy, the math, physics and chemistry departments of the University of Lausanne.

Don’t 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 nationalist parties. 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.

This article was first posted as part of the Inside Higher Education’s world view blog series:


Only 1 comment until now

  1. patricia pol @ 2012-03-05 07:14

    When the search for excellence began to enter the sphere of higher education at the very beginning of the 21st century, under the very strong pressure of a so called competitive world for higher education, I was unable to stop remembering the very popular book worldwide, published in the 80’s to promote the « search for excellence » for competitive firms. I was just finishing my studies in the French “Grande école” ESSEC from which you are a graduate as well. The eight aspects of “the art and science of management”, claimed by T.Peters and R. Waterman to explain the success of various firms have been taught in every business school in the world. It could worthwhile recalling other publications in the 90’s or in the first decade of 2000 about “in search for stupidity” or « the cost of excellence ».
    I come from a country where “in search of excellence” has been the core element of the public policy of higher education for the last seven years with the very strong assumption that most higher education institutions are conservative, archaic, and have to understand that differentiation and project-based management is the only way to survive. I have been listening to many of my colleagues abroad, being involved in international development of three distinct institutions, and I have seen how this enormous pressure could lead to short terms and not rational decisions, made to quickly, to decide fundamental changes at national and institutional levels. It always surprises me so much when I consider that the mission of a university is to produce knowledge and use it for helping our future leaders, engineers, managers and other professional to be more employable. I can only believe that a dominant ideology guides our decision-makers.
    When you mention that you felt guilty when you realized that many developing countries are reforming their system to have world-class universities, I really understand what you mean and I’m very happy that you have the courage to speak and write this.

    The result of this strong unique differentiation is that the non-world-class universities are now considered as second class universities, without any need to have an international dimension since they are supposed to be local or regional. I’m not sure at all , even if we consider that Higher Education has become as competitive as any other industry, that it is very rational (since rationality is at the core of the existing public policies) to spend large amounts of public investment in the search for excellence for a very small number of so-called world class universities. Given the important increase of participation rates to come, we might need to have a large number of very strong universities all over the world.

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