The flaw in the world-class university paradigm (January 2016)
Updated: Mar 18, 2020
Bekir S. Gur, University World News, Issue No: 396, January 15, 2016.
Many have criticised the pernicious effects of global university rankings. Nonetheless, the same rankings are perhaps the most powerful tool influencing national higher education policies around the world.
Without any sound alternative vision for higher education, many governments pour huge resources into elite national universities so that they can have one ‘World-Class University’ or more. In other words, accepting the ‘World-Class University’ as a paradigm, they realise that it is no longer sufficient to have prestigious national universities – that is, flagship universities – and accordingly race to have one or more top places in global league tables.
The New Flagship University, edited by John Douglass of the University of California, Berkeley, provides a more balanced vision for leading national universities by examining the historical and emerging roles played by national elite universities as well as higher education policies and best practices.
Douglass argues that global rankings distort the prime mission of universities which is to focus on regional and national needs and service to society.
As a respected historian of higher education and scholar of contemporary global higher education policy, Douglass reminds us of the true mission of leading universities and discusses four realms of policy and practice: “a Flagship University’s place in national systems of higher education; the expanse of programmes and activities related to their ‘core’ mission of teaching and learning and research; old and new notions of public service and approaches to regional and national economic development; and governance, management, and internally derived accountability practices that form a foundation for the New Flagship model”.
Accordingly, Douglass suggests a more holistic approach to shaping the mission, academic culture and practices of a university instead of focusing on research productivity as a means to improve a university’s ranking in the league tables.
Douglass’ book also includes four chapters on Asian, Russian, Latin American and Scandinavian higher education systems by experts.
Douglass and his colleagues differentiate between leading or national elite universities (that is, traditional Flagship Universities) and the New Flagship Universities. While every country may have one national elite university or more, the New Flagship University is, according to Douglass, a more comprehensive institution in the range of its activities and it has a high level of autonomy and academic culture which values internally derived accountability.
Individual chapters focus on flagship universities in their regions, review policy changes in response to the global race of university league tables and speculate on the emerging qualities of New Flagship Universities.
Massification vs world class universities
Like many other countries, Turkey has been significantly influenced by global university rankings. Perhaps what makes the Turkish case a little different from that of many other countries is the fact that Turkish higher education has been expanding boldly since 2006 in terms of the number of universities, faculty and students it has, especially in its less developed regions.
Accordingly, while the net higher education participation rate for 18-22 year olds was close to 20% in 2006, it is 39% as of 2013, according to official figures.
Turkish universities have also become more visible in the global university rankings in the past decade. In other words, while Turkey is trying to overcome challenges of massification and universalisation of higher education, some Turkish universities are aiming to climb into the global league tables.
Accordingly, some leading Turkish universities – such as Istanbul University, Middle East Technical University, Bogaziçi University, Bilkent University, Koç University and Istanbul Technical University – have increased their research productivity in order to gain a prominent place in global league tables.
One can conjecture that the establishment of so many new universities and admitting hundreds of thousands of students to these universities in a very short time-span has relieved traditional elite universities so they can focus more on research and continue to train the professional and bureaucratic elites.
These elite universities share some features of New Flagship Universities. To illustrate, they are considered the best domestic universities in terms of quality: the number of faculty with PhDs, the number of students with the highest test scores and their ability to offer a wide range of disciplines; they play an important role in national politics and policies; and they have considerable international connections. They also house many international faculty and many academic programmes where the medium of instruction is English.
Turkey still needs to increase its funding of higher education as its expenditure per student is well below the average of OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – member countries. However, there has certainly been a generous increase in available resources to universities over the past decade.
To illustrate, along with the expansion of the higher education system, total public expenditure on higher education in Turkey almost doubled from TRY8.7 billion (US$2.9 billion) to TRY16.9 billion (US$5.6 billion) between 2009 and 2014.
However, when we compare the qualities of New Flagship Universities with the leading Turkish universities, we can see that the biggest challenge does not lie in available resources, but in the poor governance and management structure of Turkish universities.
Nobody is happy with the existing Higher Education Law, which was enacted right after the military coup d’état of 1980. The law stipulates a clear form of centralised higher education system with the Board of Higher Education, or YÖK, at its centre and effectively limits universities’ ability to self-govern and their mission differentiation (for more background information, see How to Abolish the Board of Higher Education).
Moreover, the election of rector candidates by faculty votes continues to polarise faculty across the political spectrum and accordingly hinders successful academic functioning at most universities. Besides, the final appointment of rectors by the President continues to be a subject for debate.
Furthermore, although the current government programme includes a reform agenda for higher education, efforts to renew the Higher Education Law have failed numerous times in the past because there has been no agreement on any alternative higher education system.
As of yet, there is no overarching policy for effective mission differentiation between universities or for renewing funding mechanisms, nor any encouragement for universities to combine their resources so they can gain competitive advantages in the global higher education race.
Nonetheless, the one-year Action Plan of the newly elected government includes a reform agenda for higher education and we will have to wait to see whether there will be any major reform.
To sum up, rather than publishing global league tables on their websites and announcing the places of Turkish universities in those tables, more discussion and research are needed on the proper role of national public universities in a globalised world.
Bekir S Gur, PhD, is currently an assistant professor at Yildirim Beyazit University in Ankara, Turkey. He has been a visiting scholar at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States from 2014 to 2015. Previously, he directed educational policy research at SETA Foundation, an Ankara based think-tank, and worked as an adviser to the Turkish Board of Higher Education, or YÖK. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.