Building World Class Research Universities Is Significantly More Complex than Many Countries Estimate―New World Bank Report

October 6, 2011

WASHINGTON, October 6, 2011 - In a global economy that depends on sophisticated innovation and knowledge to drive growth and wealth, a new World Bank report on higher education suggests that low- and middle-income countries should resist the temptation to establish world-class universities to cash in on research earnings and court global prestige before educating their own citizens to high tertiary standards.


According to the new report, The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities, which charts the experience of 11 leading public and private research universities in nine countries from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, elite research universities are outpacing the smartest companies in the world with their original research. In one recent global study on new patents, for example, leading universities and research institutions are driving more scientific strides in biotechnology than private companies and firms. 


“Looking at the elite research and grant money cascading out of world-class universities, as well as their new thinking in the humanities and social sciences, you can certainly understand why countries might think that a top-flight research institution is all that stands in their way of reducing poverty, leaping forward in their national development, and establishing new footholds in the global knowledge economy,” says Dr. Jamil Salmi, the Bank’s Higher Education Coordinator, and a co-author of the new report. “But this decision cannot be simply tactical. It must be a long-term strategic decision that aspiring countries take, weighing all the facts, while banishing any notion of fast results.”


The new report concludes that top-performers in the research university world share three common characteristics, without which 21st Century universities cannot survive, let alone, excel: a high concentration of talented academics and students, significant budgets, and strategic vision and leadership.


In most cases, world-class universities have students and faculty who are not exclusively from the country where the university operates. This enables them to attract the most talented people, no matter where they come from, and open themselves to new ideas and approaches. Unquestionably, the world’s best universities enroll and employ large numbers of foreign students and faculty in their search for the most talented. In this respect, the fact that world-class universities succeed in mobilizing a broadly diverse national and international academic staff is likely to maximize these research institutions’ knowledge-networking capacity.


It Costs Millions


Another conclusion from the new Bank study is that building and operating world-class universities can cost millions of dollars. For example, the authors show that in late 2007, Saudi Arabia announced plans for a new $10 billion graduate research university; Pakistan plans to spend $750 million for each of its new universities of engineering, science, and technology during the next few years; and the school of medicine established by Cornell University in Qatar in 2002 cost $750 million. The availability of abundant money and international prestige creates a virtuous circle that allows elite universities to attract more top professors and researchers, as is often the case for leading U.S. colleges. 


Recent years of global economic crisis, though, have significantly affected research universities, potentially boosting East Asia’s universities. East Asian countries have weathered the economic storm better than their Western counterparts, as they seek to join the top ranks of the global research elite. For example, India has increased its higher education investment by 31 percent since 2010, and China has continued to fund its excellence programs in support of the nation’s leading universities.


Vision and Leadership Matter


Although unlimited money and attracting the world’s best and brightest students and teachers helps strengthen a country’s bid to create a world-class university, strategic vision and leadership are also vital, without which national aspiration to a world-class university ranking falls short.


According to the new report, world class universities thrive in environments that foster competitiveness, unrestrained scientific inquiry and academic freedom, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity. Moreover, institutions that have complete autonomy are also more flexible because they are not bound by cumbersome bureaucracies and externally imposed standards, even in light of the legitimate rules and statutes that bind them. As a result, they can manage their resources with agility and quickly respond to the demands of a rapidly changing global market.


“To make the grade, you also need inspiring and persistent leaders, a strong strategic vision of where the institution is going, a philosophy of success and excellence, and a culture of constant reflection, organizational learning, and change. On top of that, you can’t be impatient, either,” says Professor Philip G. Altbach, Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, and a co-author of the new Bank report.


The report says that not every country needs comprehensive world-class universities, at least not while more fundamental tertiary education needs are not being met. Many countries, it adds, would be better off initially focusing on developing the best national universities possible. For example, higher-level research institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa that are equipped to provide quality education and conduct relevant applied research can play a key role in training skilled workers to be fluent in the latest technologies and apply them in industries to make a broader range of products that win customers worldwide.


“Good-quality tertiary education is also key to stimulating innovation, from producing new varieties of crops and sources of energy that can speed progress toward reducing poverty, achieving food security, fighting disease, improving health, and creating new jobs,” says Ghana’s Education Minister, the Honorable  Betty Mould-Iddrisu.


In the foreword to the new report, India’s Minister of Human Resource Development, Dr. Kapil Sibal, writes that the ultimate test of modern research universities is whether they can be flexible enough to encourage learning across disciplines and to harmonize education with the needs of society. Innovation, he writes, is seen as the mantra for development, “a realization so pervasive that nations are scrambling to create institutions and organizations that would facilitate the process of knowledge creation.”


“The world today is ripe for another tectonic shift in our understanding of the university as an institution. India can emerge as a knowledge power only if an appropriate architecture for higher education is put in place. Indian youth have demonstrated their inventiveness and energy in the past. Higher education that channels this capacity for innovation will unleash the latent potential of India’s demographic dividend.”


The World Bank and Education 

By investing in people, the World Bank believes that education is a powerful driver of human development and economic growth, and is also one of the strongest instruments for reducing poverty. The Bank manages a portfolio of $11.2 billion with operations in 82 countries, and invested more than $1.8 billion in education in 2011. During the last ten years, education financing by the International Development Association, the Bank’s zero-interest fund for the poorest countries, has helped recruit or train 3 million additional teachers and build more than 2 million new classrooms, benefiting more than 100 million children every year.

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