[This post was first published in University World News] Universities throughout the world are becoming part of a global community, not just of scholars or students, but also of leaders, managers and administrators. This is sometimes referred to as Westernisation or Americanisation, or even ‘McDonaldisation’, and is frequently seen as a negative phenomenon. This homogenisation is linked to the debate on the knowledge-based economy and knowledge society, which has provided new models for teaching and research and also for the governance of institutions. Both education and research in the university are increasingly determined by external criteria rather than internal academic dialogue. These new models primarily exist to serve the economy and society and can be described as open, relevant and responsive.

One might argue that universities, especially public ones, have always existed to serve national economic and social interests. However, these services are becoming the raisons d’être of the university, partly displacing its function as an institution for personal academic and intellectual enrichment (the ‘ivory tower’ model’). International organisations such as the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co operation and Development (OECD), but also consultants, policy advisers and academics, have played a major role in advocating the ‘service-oriented research university’ model, with the current debate on global university models creating pressures for universities to conform and converge towards ‘prescribed’ types of university. But is this greater international homogenisation necessarily a bad thing?

Service-oriented research universities

A focus on applied research which is economically relevant, graduate labour market demands, the recruitment of new target groups, organisational autonomy and the incorporation of external stakeholders are all elements of this global model. Academic models such as the ‘triple helix’ approach [university-industry-government relationships], mode 2 knowledge production or the ‘entrepreneurial university’ have been picked up by political or opinion leaders, often in distorted and simplified forms. Countries such as Finland and regions such as Silicon Valley in California or Bangalore in India have become models for other countries and regions, such as the Bandung High Tech Valley in Indonesia. Prestigious universities in the US or UK have become models for other universities throughout the world ( the ‘Harvard of country A’ or an ‘Oxford in city B’).

This service oriented model of the national research university appeared throughout the world in the 1990s, spreading mainly from the Anglo-Saxon countries, and was also adopted and adapted in Malaysia and Indonesia. It impacts core functions of the university – education and research – as well as their governance and management. Local versions can now be observed in Southeast Asia. Institutions such as the University of Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia (Malasyia) and Universitas Gadjah Mada and Institut Teknologi Bandung (Indonesia) have clearly adopted the discourse of openness, relevance and responsiveness in their policies and strategies. However, although the four universities in Malaysia and Indonesia now have technology transfer offices, incubators, courses and centres promoting entrepreneurialism, professional training opportunities, external boards of trustees etc, they function and perform very differently in the different countries and universities.


Critics often speak of Westernisation or Americanisation and ‘new imperialism’ to describe the homogenising forces in higher education . This may be the case when certain models are imposed on countries, for instance by colonial powers or global institutions such as the World Bank. But in Southeast Asia – and in particular in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia – the adoption of global university models appears more organic or voluntary. University leaders have become more and more socialised into a global policy community characterised by shared ideas about higher education’s main challenges and their solutions.

Deliberate cross-national learning takes place when policy-makers emulate or imitate practices in other countries or when they adopt best practices developed elsewhere. This process of policy learning or policy borrowing has become increasingly common. Through visiting foreign campuses or inviting international advisers or consultants, universities borrow or learn from other countries. For instance, Malaysian former prime minister Mohamed Mahathir’s knowledge of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government inspired the founding of the INPUMA (International Institute of Public Policy and Management) at the University of Malaya; and the idea of a Silicon Valley-like region between Jakarta and Bandung was first proposed by the global consultancy firm McKinsey.

Many of Southeast Asia’s vice-chancellors, rectors and presidents have been trained abroad, often in the UK or US. Some have worked in foreign universities. All attend international conferences and seminars and all of them – and their staff – receive much of their professional information from international journals, reports and websites.
Many are in direct contact with university leaders abroad, face-to-face, via email or through other new forms of communication. Many will also read University World News or other global higher education media on a regular basis and this also frames their way of thinking about university management.

Global organisations such as the OECD play an active role in the diffusion of best practice, for instance on university management or the university’s role in a region. Media and other ranking organisations have given the creation of global exemplars – the so-called ‘world-class university’ – a massive boost.

The local context

Whether practices or policies from abroad are adopted successfully or not depends on the correct interpretation of them. Many examples become over-simplified in the process of borrowing or learning, resulting in sub-optimal results. But as long as the adoption of certain models is based on a rational assessment, an improvement of systems and universities can follow. For example, in both Malaysia and Indonesia national research universities were given autonomous status. However, in Malaysia this has been somewhat symbolic, given the historical, culturally determined close connections between the government and universities. In Indonesia, on the other hand, autonomy has been mostly interpreted as financial autonomy. The first universities were given autonomous status just after the Asian economic crisis of 1997, preceding a severe cut in government funding. In both cases there is a discrepancy between the global model and the local interpretation. The success of policy changes, particularly new practices, depends on how these fit the local cultural, legal, institutional or political context that has evolved over decades or centuries.
Another example is the drive towards the commercial application of research results and the stimulation of an entrepreneurial attitude among academics in the service-oriented research university. This drive stems from the fact that universities used to be too focused on ‘mode 1’ research (academic, investigator-initiated and discipline-based). In countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia ‘mode 2’ type research (context-driven, problem-focused and interdisciplinary) has also been adopted, despite the lack of a history of thorough ‘mode 1’ research.

A one-way street?

In my opinion the homogenisation that results from the international debate about university models is not negative in itself. The global diffusion of certain models can have positive effects because the knowledge about such models and their effectiveness becomes shared knowledge and one country learns from or is inspired by another. However, this learning process has to be well informed and needs to incorporate cross-national differences.

That said, in reality this diffusion process frequently follows a West-to-East or North-to-South pattern. This might be not so much a reflection of power relations but more a reflection of a willingness to learn from others. In this respect, universities in the West should be more open to developments in other parts of the world and be more open towards learning from these developments.

Despite the claims of Westernisation or McDonaldisation of higher education we can still detect specific varieties of higher education in different parts of the world, each with their own particularities, strengths and weaknesses. In 2010 Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, warned the US that “the time has come for American higher education to think the unthinkable: that it can learn lessons from Asia”. The reaction of European policy-makers, after the recent publication of the OECD’s PISA results comparing 15 year-olds’ performance, echoed this warning. Already, many of them are seeking ways to learn from Asia’s performance in maths and science education.

In the same way, universities in other parts of the world, especially in East Asia (Singapore, Korea and China), might prove important sources of inspiration for universities in the US and Europe.

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