What does it mean to be ‘world class’?
28 November 2008
In recent years, the notion of a world-class university has become a concept much invoked by governments and by universities themselves.
One major consequence of the quest for world-class status is the intensified competition among universities to ‘prove’ their performance through global university league tables or ranking exercises, which are becoming increasingly influential in shaping how contemporary universities are governed and what core activities they undertake. But with increasing competition for students and the ceaseless search for research funding, what does the concept of ‘world class’ actually mean? Should we all be thinking more carefully about the dangers involved in competing to outrank each other in such league tables? If we all tacitly accept the same criteria by which performance is to be judged, is there is a risk that universities will start to become the same the world over, losing what is distinctive about their educational cultures and traditions? Furthermore, since the consequence of this drive for world-class status is something that can only be achieved by a very small number of institutions within each country, there are inevitably going to be many losers.
For example, using Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) grades, citation indexes, publication rates and rates of staffing, a 2003 report for UK Universities on ‘Funding Research Diversity’ examined how the concentration of research resources affects levels of research achievement in different regions. The report found overwhelmingly that the three regions in the south-east of England had the highest density of departments rated of ‘international excellence’. If institutions in these areas gain yet more funding as a result of the current RAE, places such as Wales and the East Midlands will lose out. This may result, the report argues, in ‘reduced regional research capacity [that] will have knock-on effects for regional economic performance and the capacity for technology innovation’. The negative consequences of further concentration of research resources cannot be over-stated in this regard and the situation is likely to be the case in other countries as well.
This drive for world-class status can only be achieved by a very small number of institutions
While the quest for world-class status in higher education is clearly not going to disappear, the social and political costs should not be underestimated. The task of the ‘Ideas and Universities’ project, therefore, is to find a shared language for discussion and offer a forum in which to bring together people from a wide range of backgrounds to consider the purpose and value of universities in the face of different models of internationalisation and globalisation. Through this, the project team aims to create awareness of a greater range of possibilities and offer a more informed critique of current planning and policy-making. To help this process, they are using video conferencing technology to broadcast seminars and hold lively discussion sessions with staff and students around the globe, in a bid to inform the debate about the future of universities and understand exactly what it means to be ‘world class’ in a competitive twenty-first century.