Jamil Salmi, former coordinator for tertiary education at the World Bank

The challenge of establishing World-Class Universities

An issue under debate worldwide and at IIEP

Tertiary education for economic growth and competitiveness is increasingly recognized as of critical importance – not only for middle- and high-income countries, but also for low-income countries. Research universities are emerging as the central institutions of the 21st century knowledge economies, but there is also growing competition for human talent across higher education systems.

In recent years, the proliferation of international university league tables – extending the tradition of national rankings in the United States – has generated increased focus on world-class universities (WCU) which seems to offer a more systematic way of identifying and classifying the top universities globally. International rankings have, however, their own biases since they focus very largely on measurable research performance and favour the Anglo-Saxon world.

The ways to settle World-Class Universities

“World-class universities are institutions with a concentration of human talent, a strong international dimension and abundant resources”, stated Jamil Salmi, in introducing the topic at the seminar held at IIEP on 5 November 2012. Former coordinator for tertiary education at the World Bank, and former member of the IIEP Governing Board, the author of The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities pleaded for the creation of brand-new WCUs instead of merging or upgrading existing ones. “There is an inherent danger when governments and universities concentrate too much on establishing world-class universities”, he added. Indeed, there are about 17,000 universities worldwide, and only some 100 can be generally considered as belonging to the select club. Under what conditions then should higher education policy focus at all on the objective of establishing WCUs?

Following Salmi’s presentation, Nilinthone Sacklokham – Officer at the Higher Education Department of the Ministry of Education and Sports in Vientiane, Lao PDR, and current trainee in the IIEP Advanced Training Programme – presented the characteristics and challenges of higher education in her country, where higher education has the main function of providing human resources and applied knowledge for national development. While there is a policy of creating centres of excellence within existing universities, there is currently no attempt to establish WCUs.

The presentations were followed by a debate with the audience that focused on contextual factors such as conflict and corruption, which are major obstacles to the establishment of a WCU. The question was also posed whether international agencies should not concentrate their work on helping universities to construct their own particular pathway to development rather than trying to become WCUs.

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