Tuesday, March 02, 2021

The Route to World-Class University Status Way off?


By John A. Akec


The World Cup competition involves 209 national teams fighting for 32 slots in the grand finale at the end of every four years. The best, if lucky team, wins the coveted gold trophy. Other up runners get trophies of lesser grades as recognition.


In the academic world, in contrast, the names of the top 10, 100, 200, or 2000 best performing universities from a list of more than 25,000 existing world universities are published annually in league tables of the world-class universities by non-profit ranking organisations. These organisations include Times Higher Education World University Ranking (THE WUR), Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), QS World University Ranking, and US News & World Report global ranking. The Times Higher Education (THE) ranking awards 40 percent of points to institutional reputation. Shanghai Jiao Tong league tables, On the other hand, use statistical data to rank universities.


Universities with ‘world-class’ status are known for their highly rated research output, their culture of excellence, their great facilities, and their brand names that transcend national borders, according to Cloete and Maan at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.


While the international league tables fuel global ‘reputational competition’ amongst universities in research performance, some of the indicators and ranking practices have attracted criticism. These include using the number of Nobel prize-winning alumni as a proxy for the research excellence, favouring publications in English, placing the older and wealthier Northern American and European universities at the top of the lists, and ignoring or undervaluing teaching and service to society.


Furthermore, about 70 of the 100 top-ranked world universities originate from English-speaking countries. The rankings have been influential in deciding who is eligible to receive scholarship grants, as well as where good scholars head for work or study. Namely, ranking puts less reputable universities at some disadvantage. Fears have been expressed that such competition may eliminate institutional diversity as everyone strives to look ‘like Harvard or Oxford’, a phenomenon called “institutional isomerism.’


Nevertheless, league tables can influence the formation of institutional strategies. For example, because of ‘Harvard here syndrome’, German government initiated the Excellence Initiative in 2010 that aimed to concentrate resources in fewer but competitive German universities. It also experimented with awarding ‘foundation status’ to selected universities in order to make them more autonomous and responsive to changing operating environment.


Similarly, in Finland, University of Aalto was formed as a merger of Helsinki School of Economics, the Helsinki University of Technology, and University of Arts and Design, in order to pool resources and strive to achieve world-class excellence. 


Generally speaking, global ranking tables are dominated by top research universities in industrialised countries, also known as Super RUs. This is a small percentage of all post-secondary institutions and range from 3% out of 3000 universities in China, to 5% out of 4000 universities in US, to 25% out of 100 universities in United Kingdom.


For research universities to flourish, national higher education systems are required to differentiate in their missions at post-secondary levels; and to organize and align their programmes and priorities with appropriate missions. Some of our universities could address the growing demand for access, while the flagship universities (Juba, Bahr El Ghazal, and Upper Nile) align their research and academic programs to national economic growth and social development goals, and to connect with national and global knowledge economy. In some communities where uniformity is preferred in order to create equal society, such calls for vertical, as opposed to horizontal differentiation, may fall on deaf ears.


Yet make no mistake, the route to world-class, while expanding access, passes through differentiation. A good example of a differentiated higher education system is offered by the US state of California comprising a number of private universities, and public universities with three tier system of ten campuses of University of California with 220,000 students; state universities on 23 campuses with combined student population of 430,000; and an undefined number of open two-year community colleges that enrolled 1.5 million students in 2009.  


As for us in South Sudan, the route to gaining world-class status demands that our flagship universities be well led and well governed, have critical mass of talented staff and students, and an unfettered access to financial resources.


By the look of things, we are still way off the track.



  • Prof Akec,
    This is an extremely sound and timely analysis of the trend higher education is taking in the world. High quality universities will come as a result of visionary and ambitious leadership that is concerned about the future generations and the inevitable fight for survival in which all humankind are currently engaged in. Indeed, the fittest to survive may not necessarily be the strongest, but the most intelligent and the wisest. We hope to get back on track soonest. thanks. Alier

    By Blogger Unknown, At 2:43 AM  

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