Robert Birnbaum, professor of higher education at the University of Maryland and author of some very interesting books on higher education (How Colleges Work; Management Fads in Higher Education) has written an interesting (and amusing) article in International Higher Education (the Quarterly of the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) in Boston College).

Birnbaum is worried about the World Class University ranking crisis. Universities around the world are either proclaiming that they have attained or try to achieve this mythical status. But actually, we have no clue what it means. Philip Altbach, leader of CIHE, has written before on the cost and benefits of the race towards world class:

Everyone wants a world-class university. No country feels it can do without one. The problem is that no one knows what a world-class university is, and no one has figured out how to get one. Everyone, however, refers to the concept. We are in an age of academic hype in which universities of different kinds in diverse countries claim this exalted status-often with little justification.

Birnbaum gives some suggestion on some alternative ways to identify world class universities:

  1. The Bentham System – this scheme, based on the 19th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s principle of Utilitarianism, proposes that the best universities are those that bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number.
  2. Olympic System – In the Olympic System, teams of university faculty would compete every four years in head to head competitions combining athletic and intellectual prowess to determine their world rankings
  3. Borges System – our scholarly task is merely to identify the book of true ratings from among the infinite number of books that contain very similar, but false, ratings which also exist
  4. Sausage System – Throw U.S. News, the Gourman Report, the Times Hiigher Education Supplement, and other rankings created by systems of all kinds into the same bowl, add and average out the results and voila! Just as we do not know how a sausage is made (or, more to the point, we don’t want to know) the Sausage System makes it difficult to understand just what has gone into any particular set of ratings.
  5. Lake Wobegon System – in Lake Wobegon, you will remember, all the children are above average. This suggests the possibility of significantly expanding the number of institutions that can be ranked as world class merely by increasing the number of institutions in each category.

But he continues on a more serious note. Building on a metaphor by Daniel Dennett, he argues that such World Class Universities can only be built if they are firmly grounded in strong and indigenous educational and social foundations Trying to develop them by using imported rhetoric, imported models and large sums of money is destined to fail:

“Attempting to build World-Class Universities without attending first to the educational and social ground on which such institutions might stand is, as Ivan Illich once said, is “like trying to do urban renewal in New York City from the twelfth story up.” Rather than more World Class Universities, what we really need in countries everywhere are more world-class technical institutes, world-class community colleges, world class colleges of agriculture, world class teachers colleges, and world class regional state universities.”

A similar conclusion was drawn by Altbach. He concluded that as universities around the world seem to be orienting themselves to this single academic ideal, institutions and nations need to assess carefully their needs, resources, and long-term interests before launching into a campaign to build world-class institutions:

“Universities operate in both national and global contexts. The world-class idea falls into the global sphere. It assumes that the university is competing with the best academic institutions in the world and is aspiring to the pinnacle of excellence and recognition. National and even regional realities may differ. They relate to the need of the immediate society and economy and imply responsiveness to local communities. In these contexts, the nature of academic performance and roles may differ from what is expected at institutions competing in the global realm. To label one sphere world class while relegating the others to the nether regions of the academic hierarchy is perhaps inevitable, but nonetheless unfortunate.”

I wholeheartedly agree with both conclusions. Universities are one of the oldest institutions and are clearly embedded in a nations’ cultural, political and social context. This is not just the case for the Oxbridge-like universities, but also for the more recently established universities. However, this should not be a reason to avoid learning from each others experiences or models. Even copying models from other parts of the world does not necessarily lead to failure. It’s just a matter of adaptation. And it is this process of local adaptation that is made difficult by the pressures on universities to adhere to so-called global world class standards.

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