The Search for World-Class Universities

From China to the U.K., schools vie to be the best on Earth.

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In recent years, the phenomenon in which higher education institutions around the world aim for the status of "World-Class Universities" has spread across the globe.

Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, tried to explain this movement in the article "The Costs and Benefits of World-Class Universities." He points out that a world-class university goes beyond the dictionary definitions of "ranking among the foremost in the world; of an international standard of excellence." He says a world-class university has to excel in research and needs adequate facilities for academic work, plus it must have academic freedom, an atmosphere of intellectual excitement, and a significant measure of internal self-governance. Of course, funding must be available to support its research and teaching along with the other functions of the university.

Recently, more universities in the United States and a growing number of schools around the world have made it a goal to become a "World-Class University." In addition, a number of national governments, especially in developing countries, are taking special measures like providing extra funding from the federal government to build elite universities that they hope will become catalysts for both economic and intellectual development at home. These countries—China is a prime example—also hope that by having at least one or more of these world-class institutions they will be able to remain competitive in what is becoming a global market for students, faculty, and research dollars. Many people believe these schools can help prevent "brain drain," the trend in which the best and the brightest leave a region to find better opportunities elsewhere.

At the second International Conference on World-Class Universities, sponsored by the Center for World-Class Universities and Institute of Higher Education and held at China's Shanghai Jiao Tong University, this topic was discussed for two whole days. There were speakers from China, Romania, the United States, Switzerland, France, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Slovenia, Japan, Thailand, Spain, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

My conclusions about "World-Class Universities" are:

* Some developing countries in Africa and the Middle East could be left behind in the race to build universities that are recognized as being world class, which would have long-term negative consequences.

* The United States's leadership in higher education is being challenged by countries and universities that are creating schools that compete with the leading American research universities.