THES leak

The official top 200 of the world’s universities (according to the Times Higher Education Supplement) will be published tomorrow. But a privileged copy is already available at this blog. For an analysis of the new list, have a look at this weblog.

My observations? My current university (University of Sydney) ranked 38th, slightly up from last years position of 40th. Australia ranked third in terms of the amount of universities in the top 200 with 17 universities. Not surprisingly, the US and the UK ranked 1st and 2nd.

My ‘other’ home country the Netherlands ranked 4th with 10 universities in the top 200 but does not have any universities in the top 50. This illustrates the way Dutch higher education is often typified: a plateau with a few peaks. The plateau is there, the peaks are getting higher…

What’s the right atmosphere?

The International Herald Tribune yesterday reported about China’s investments in their universities.

China is focusing on science and technology, areas that reflect the country’s development needs, but also reflect the preferences of an authoritarian system that restricts free speech. The liberal arts often involve critical thinking about politics, economics and history. The government has placed relatively little emphasis on achieving world-class status in these subjects. Yet, many Chinese say – most often indirectly – that the limits on academic debate could hamper efforts to create world-class universities

“Right now, I don’t think any university in China has an atmosphere comparable to the older Western universities – Harvard or Oxford – in terms of freedom of expression,” said Lin Jianhua, the executive vice president of Peking University. “We are trying to give the students a better environment, but in order to do these things we need time. Not 10 years, but maybe one or two generations.”

The question is: can China wait for two generations? Artists and academics are already raising their voices.

But the biggest weakness, many Chinese academics indicated, is the lack of academic freedom. Yang, the former president of Fudan, warned that if the right “atmosphere” was not cultivated, great thinkers from overseas might come to China for a year or two only to leave, frustrated. Gong Ke, a vice president of Tsinghua University, said universities had “the duty to guarantee academic freedom. We have professors who teach here, foreigners, who teach very differently from the Chinese government’s point of view. Some of them really criticize the economic policy of China.”

Li Ao, a well-known Taiwanese writer, called for greater academic freedom and independence from the government in a September speech at Peking University. The next day, after reportedly coming under heavy official pressure, he delivered a far tamer version of the speech at Tsinghua University, where media coverage was tightly controlled. The Chinese government also censors university online bulletin boards and discussion groups, and recently prevented students at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou from conversing freely with visiting elected officials from Hong Kong.

Students here are not encouraged to challenge authority or received wisdom. For some, this helps explain why China has never won a Nobel Prize in any category. What is needed most now, some of China’s best scholars say, are bold, original thinkers.

How long can a highly educated population be censored and restricted by government regulation? And can you have sustainable world-class universities without academic freedom?    

More branches

Unlike the University of Warwick, the University of New South Wales will continue to develop its branch campus in Singapore. The University of Warwick decided not to establish a branch campus because of financial reasons and because of Singapore’s regulation that foreign institutions are not allowed to criticise local politics. UNSW and Warwick were the only two foreign universities granted special status by the Singaporean Government to set up fully fledged independent teaching and research institutions offering undergraduate degrees. UNSW expects to open the doors of its UNSW Asia Campus, to up to 15,000 students from early 2007. As the Sydney Morning Herald reports, it is also a major financial investment:

“UNSW has already secured a State Government-endorsed bank loan of $113 million for the Singapore campus. But it will also receive about $80 million in capital works funding from the Singapore Government, a figure the university’s deputy vice-chancellor (international and development), John Ingleson, has refused to confirm or deny, on the grounds that it is commercial-in-confidence.”

I have been posting about this topic before. It is not that I am against the establishments of foreign branch campuses and neither are these posts meant to criticise Singapore’s desire to attract foreign universities. However I do think there needs to be some more transparency (especially in the case of public universities) and more balance between financial interests and public or academic interests. The UNSW is a good and well respected university, but I would expect some better arguments for their decisions. Here are a few of them:

  • Professor Ingleson said he had been assured by the Government there that students and academics would enjoy complete academic freedom on campus. He dismissed concerns raised by the Warwick pull-out, arguing that UNSW had “a more nuanced view of how Singapore and its society worked”.
  • “There is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech in any country … in that sense, our staff and our students will be subject … off-campus to the laws of Singapore like anyone else”.
  • Professor Ingleson believed Warwick’s decision was based on financial risk rather than concern about academic freedom. He said UNSW was not exposed to the same risk as Warwick because the Australian university had closer ties with the region and a more firmly established brand name.

Snapped branches

Warwick’s decision not to set up a branch campus has become final. Today the Warwick website announced that on the 18th of October the council voted against the Singapore plans. Their press release however remains vary vague about the exact reasons compared to the article in the Financial Times and Warwick’s student paper Boar (see my previous post). The university will however keep on cooperating with Singapore:

The Council further resolved that the University should continue discussions within the academic community and with the EDB with a view to bringing forward an alternative plan for academic development in Singapore which could command the support of the Senate and the Council.

I think continuing the cooperation is a good decision. Hopefully the real reasons for the no-vote will remain an item in these cooperative ventures.


In the coming four weeks the posting will probably be a bit slower. I am currently visiting the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies in the Netherlands (a 3-week visit sponsored by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia). After this I’ll be co-teaching a course in an Erasmus Mundus programme at the University of Aveiro in Portugal for one week (a course jointly offered by the University of Oslo, the University of Aveiro and the University of Tampere (Finland) and coordinated by HEDDA).

In these weeks I’ll try to keep up with the news in academia and report my views on it. For now, here are two news items of the past days that struck me.

First there are the results of a study commissioned by the British Council. Both the Chronicle and The Australian report on the study that finds that Australia remains a favourite destination of Asian foreign students. The study follows up on a previous survey, conducted in 2000. Then they found that fewer than half of international students in Australia regarded the country as a destination preferred over Britain or the United States. In 2005, however, 81 percent reported that Australia was their first choice among the three recruiting rivals. Only 11 per cent of Asian students in Australia would have preferred to be in the US (in 2000 the figure was 33 per cent) and only 8 per cent in Britain (in 2000, 15 per cent). The results were presented at the Australian International Education Conference. At the same conference, studies were presented about the effect of the growth of foreign students on the quality of education in Australia. Those effects remain a topic of fierce debate.

A second news item was the University of Warwick’s vote on its Singapore plans. The Financial Times reports that senior lecturers at Warwick University have voted against setting up a branch campus in Singapore because of worries about limits on academic freedom in the country. The Economic Development Board of Singapore had invited the University of Warwick and the University of New South Wales (Australia) to set up a branch campus in the country. According to the FT:

The vote is a blow to the city-state’s ambitions to become a regional hub for higher education. It comes in the week that the outgoing US ambassador to Singapore warned in a farewell speech that Singapore’s limits on expression might cause the government to “pay an increasing price for not allowing full participation of its citizens”. Singapore requires international educational institutions operating in the city-state to agree not to conduct activities seen as interference in domestic affairs.

In an interview with the Boar (the student newspaper of the university), Warwick’s Vice-Chancellor argues that: “This is the best opportunity we will ever receive. If we don’t go, how will we increase our international credibility?” Aside from wether the decision is the right one or not, it is comforting to see that even this successful university, which is commonly seen as a model for entrepreneurialism and innovation, sticks to its academic principles.


The Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania seems to have become very popular in Southeast Asia. The Singapore Management University that was established in 2000 was modeled after the Wharton School.

“Its educational and administrative practices are modeled after American institutions, in particular the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, which has played a central role in SMU’s development.”

Today, the New Straits Times reports that Malaysia is going to be home to a top-class business management institution, modeled on.. the Wharton School of Business. Special Envoy to the Higher Education Ministry Datuk Seri Effendi Norwawi said the business management institution will involve a tie-up with Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, one of eight Ivy League institutions in the United States. One of the Special Envoy’s chief tasks is to persuade top-notch universities to either set-up branch campuses here or work with other institutions here. Tony, a critical observer of Malaysian higher education, also reports on the issue.

I am currently working on a paper on international isomorphism and the global diffusion of higher education and research policies. I guess this makes a good example.

Update: I just noticed that the New Straits Time also has an interview with Effendi in today’s issue: ‘Roll out the red carpet for foreign students

One more to go

Robert J. Aumann and Thomas C. Schelling have been awarded The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2005 (a.k.a. the Nobel Prize in Economics) “for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis”.

This means we have only one more to go for 2005: the Nobel Prize for Literature. Let’s all hope this time the prize is finally going to Pramoedya Ananta Toer.    

Knowledge production shifts

I know. A lot can be said against the use of university rankings and even more against their methodologies. That said….the Times Higher education Supplement published their annual ranking of technology universities and institutions last Friday. The ranking is based on peer review assessment and on the number of citations per paper. They created 3 lists: one for technology universities, one for non-university institutions in science and one for non-university institutions in technology. Below are some of the results. In my view there are two important observations:

– The stable high positions of Asian universities. There are 4 Asian universities in the top 10 and 7 in the top 20. Continental Europe on the other hand, only has 2 universities in the top 20 (ETH Zurich and TU Delft). The non-university institutions on the other hand are located mainly in the US and some in the UK, Australia and Europe. But none in Asia.
– Another interesting observation is that the number of citations per paper is considerably higher in non-university institutions, especially for the institutions involved in science. Furthermore, most of the universities in the top 10 are public while many of the non-universities are private organisations. A shift in knowledge production from the public to the private domain?         

Click here to see the rankings


Academic Eurosclerosis

The Chronicle reports on the Eurosclerosis in academic entrepreneurialism. It’s kind of an old message: although many national and university policies have changed to promote technology transfer and commercialisation of scientific research, the traditional research universities on the continent seem not able to make the ‘cultural’ switch. Professors are more interested in their academic publication records than in their profits. In other words: bad news for the European knowledge economies and the Lisbon targets.

On the other hand, it is rather remarkable that most of the European countries have implemented regulations similar to the Bayh-Dole Act in the US, but the countries that have not, like Finland and Sweden are considered the most innovative countries in Europe. The Chronicle does give an explanation for the case of Sweden, but what about this role model of the European innovative welfare state called Finland?