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Opinion - Do we understand what a world-class university is?

2020-12-11  Staff Reporter2

Opinion - Do we understand what a world-class university is?

Prof. Jairos Kangira

It has never ceased to amaze me when I come across the phrase world-class university when I read universities’ mission statements or visions or related university literature. 
In most cases, reality proves that it is not worth the search for such status. 

Even when university managers give reports about their institutions, you can predict with certainty that ‘world-class university’ will appear somewhere, and for sure, your bet is confirmed no sooner than later.
 So attractive and fashionable is the term world-class university that it may soon become a truism if higher education institutions are not cautioned against using this term unnecessarily. 

The concept of world-class university seems to be misunderstood and abused by many higher education institutions, as it appears that there is enough evidence that the term is used arbitrarily and illogically in most cases. 
This points to the conclusion that some universities use the term world-class university just as a marketing strategy as they are miles away from the status of real world-class universities.

You find that even universities in their infancy, and some with poor infrastructure, resources and low world rankings claiming that they are world-class universities. 
Even universities without a solid cadre of renowned, international research professors erroneously or mischievously brand themselves as world-class universities. 

Literature reveals that some higher education institutions with insignificant or no international competitiveness just self-declare themselves world-class universities without much thought and self-introspection.
Such higher education institutions paradoxically thrust the world-class university status upon themselves sometimes with the false hope of attracting students and funding. 

The literature warns that such uncouth action is detrimental both in the short and long term for such institutions.
At this juncture, I want to contrast the above with the definition of world-class universities that was given by Salmi (2009). 
He said: “World-class universities are able to select the best students and attract the most qualified professors and researchers … the fact that world-class-universities succeed in mobilizing diverse national and international academic staff is likely to maximize these institutions’ knowledge-networking capacity.” 

On the same concept of world-class universities, scholar Phil Baty was quoted saying: “… most importantly, a world-class university must be genuinely international. It must be a magnet for the planet’s most talented staff and students, wherever they happen to come from; it must bring people together from a range of different cultures and backgrounds to tackle shared global challenges, and it must work and think across national borders.”
World-class universities also boast of research excellence, academic freedom and strong university-industry relationships.  

By close scrutiny of the citations from Salmi and Baty, we get to know some of the characteristics of real world-class universities. 
We can use these characteristics to determine whether institutions’ claims to world-class university status are real or just wishful thinking, the latter being the most probable in most cases. 
It is not just a matter of wanting your university to be a world-class university that you wake up fooling the nation that we now have such status.

This week I had an interesting discussion on the issue of world-class universities with Professor Judith Hall from Cardiff University in Wales, United Kingdom. Cardiff University is a world-class university. Prof Hall had this to say: “What does a world-class university mean? Very little in many ways, the words themselves are empty. 
If this aspiration is based on University League Tables, of course, that is very difficult. There are very many league tables for higher education, and they use all kinds of different metrics. 
You can be 5th on one and 50th in another!.”

“What a university needs are really good outputs, of relevance, to the society which it serves. If those outputs result in change for the people, their health, wealth and environment, then they become effective outcomes. Over time, these translate to lasting change and development for society and the planet: that is impact. 
A good university has impacts for its country and region and the very best, are able to translate this to lasting change for global good,” said Prof Hall, who arrived in Namibia this week to monitor and evaluate a number of Phoenix projects she is running in collaboration with the University of Namibia.

The question of reliance on university league tables for defining world-class universities was also raised by Hanaa Ahmed of Ain Shams University, Egypt, in her study “Strategic Approach for Developing World-Class Universities in Egypt” (2015). 

Ahmed noted that “Among scholars, institutional administrators, and policy-makers, one of the common approaches to defining world-class is through the creation and ongoing development of league tables, such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Times Higher Education World University Ranking and the QS World University Rankings. 

Despite different methodologies being used in evaluating universities in the international rankings, it is not difficult to observe that these indicators focus heavily on the quality of education, internationalization, research output, prestige and impact.”

As I see it, there are many vexatious questions and issues regarding the creation and definitions of world-class universities. 
Do all scholars and researchers in academia have the same understanding and appreciation of what world-class universities are and should be like? Do countries need to develop all their universities into world-class universities? If yes, is it possible to do so and what are the tangible benefits of doing so? These and other questions need honest and informed answers scholars – answers that will inform governments before they pump in millions of dollars down the drain in projects that fizzle out before they are started.

It is my conviction that the term world-class university is a relative and elusive term that must not be used as a catchy word in many higher education institutions. 
This is not to imply that there are no world-class universities in the world; they are there, but many universities do not qualify to be described as such. 

The problem comes when many universities call themselves world-class universities while they are not. 
Literature shows that the bandwagon approach to the concept ‘world-class university’ needs rationalization. 
So, next time you want to use the term ‘world-class university’, consider the context critically before you write or utter the phrase.

2020-12-11  Staff Reporter2

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