20 May World-Class Universities: Sustainable Global Commitments or Poor Planning?

This review was written by Tony Amante Schepers and was originally published electronically in NAFSA’s Review of Global Studies Literature – No. 3, May 2012. The original document may be accessed at http://www.nafsa.org/resourcelibrary/default.aspx?id=32568.

World-Class Universities: Sustainable Global Commitments or Poor Planning?

Challenges of Establishing World-Class Universities by Jamil Salmi
The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World by Ben Wildavsky
Reviewed by Tony Amante Scheperswww.panrimo.com
No. 3, May 2012, Review of Global Studies Literature

Nationwide higher education ranking gained attention in 1983 when U.S. News and World Report released the first comprehensive review of major U.S. universities. Now universities worldwide want to be “World-Class.” Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s new ranking of worldwide universities has created a global competition in rankings. Country borders and ivy towers cannot stop this sizing-up as higher education has gone global, as if it wasn’t before.

World-Class Universities (WCU) has been the buzz phrase the past few years in higher education. Universities new and old debate what this status means, how to reach such a level, and how to enroll in one if a student. The World Bank reportChallenges of Establishing World-Class Universities by Jamil Salmi defines a WCU as a university with talented faculty and students, abundant resources (facilities and materials), and favorable governance (faculty autonomy). Where the book falls short, however, and what Wildavsky’s The Great Brain Race analyzes with more concrete examples, is the question of whether attempting to be a WCU is a worthy endeavor or not.

Wildavsky writes of China’s efforts to boost its already established but floundering higher education system. China infused hundreds of millions of dollars into repairing dilapidated college buildings and expanding research facilities. Enrollment at Chinese universities increased from 11 million in 2002 to 15 million in 2005, but per student funding has not kept pace with increased enrollment, dropping from $847 per student in 1998 to $672 per student in 2005. While enrollment in Chinese universities has increased, the country has failed to establish standard benchmarks for grading and graduating. In other words, China created its own beast by striving for WCU status without a structured plan of action or benchmarks to gauge success.

Another example offered by Wildavsky is that of the Qatar campus of Texas A&M university. Texas A&M was having difficulty recruiting and maintaining “American” professors to teach at their Qatar campus, finding it easier to recruit English professors than international politics and economics professors. Heavy reliance on faculty from Qatar and short-term contracts raises questions regarding the equivalence of experiences at the Qatar campus compared with what students receive at the home campus: students expect to receive the same level of education at Texas A&M regardless of location. But are they getting it? Whether students at the Texas A&M Qatar campus are receiving the same education as in College Station, Texas raises the question of whether the university is becoming too large, too soon by attempting to be a WCU.

Simple economics shows an inverse relationship between supply and demand. Too much of one—and the other drops. “Have you heard of anyone wanting to multiply Harvard or Oxford even though they face a heavy demand for admissions?” asks P. V. Indiresan, a former director of the internationally and academically well-regarded IIT-Madras higher education system in India. “Value is proportional to scarcity. Make anything easily available, and its value collapses,” (Wildavsky 2010, 78).

In the end, if universities throughout the world want to compare themselves to each other for reasons of prestige or to attract students, academic broad-based institutional agreements must be made and strictly adhered to by all parties. But that will never happen. Why does Texas A&M establish a campus in Qatar? Why does New York University operate in Prague? What drove Michigan State University to create a campus in Dubai in 2008, announce its closing in 2010 due to lack of enrollment and finances, and then announce a new program there concentrating postgraduate public health degrees in 2011? So each university itself will remain in control no matter where in the world it operates?

Poor planning and short-term motivators aren’t the only reasons why striving to be a WCU may not be best for all institutions. Authors Salmi and Wildavsky both agree simple geography make ranking universities on a world-class system near impossible. In Wildavsky’s book, Tyler Cowen, a George Mason University economist, says, “There are a number of endeavors that are naturally concentrated.” Banking is likely to be found best taught in New York and London; film and the arts in Paris, Florence, and India; and mathematics in Germany. “But a whole school that’s across the board better than Boston University—the closest you get is in England, and they don’t compare that well,” (Wildavsky 2010, 96).

To create a WCU is to liken universities worldwide as similar. But then what’s the point of having varied experiences, be it in your home country university or abroad? Is a WCU a sustainable one, given how they’re created? We can appreciate the efforts of those who are working toward goals of global excellence of faculty, knowledge generation, and student outcomes. But higher education institutions worldwide need to ask themselves these questions before committing to a ranking status that may not be in their best interests.

Salmi, Jamil. 2009. Challenges of Establishing World-Class Universities. Washington, DC: The World Bank

Wildavsky, Ben. 2010. The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press


Michael Radke



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