What is a world class university?

The universities are increasingly assuming the role of a critical building block for any nation. Even in the past, the civilizations thrived on their knowledge in the fields of technology, writing, law, art, & religion, and specialized jobs. Nowadays, just creating new institutions do not cut the ice. We see colleges & universities dotting our landscape, inexorably. The challenge, however, is to come up with world-class institutions. As of now, all such institutions are in the West with a handful of them in the East. Before one could discuss approaches to create such institutes, it needs to be understood as to what exactly is a world-class university.

Scholars like Altbach & others of his ilk talk about what world-class universities have that the regular universities do not possess.  These are highly qualified faculty, excellence in research, quality teaching, high levels of government and nongovernment sources of funding, international and highly talented students, academic freedom, well-defined autonomous governance structures, and well-equipped facilities for teaching, research, administration, and even student life. This again sounds more subjective, since all of them can claim to have these characteristics. So, there are international rankings that rank the universities, on a regular basis. The most widely accepted are: Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) rankings. The former comes up with the best 200, primarily focusing on global reputation, peer reviews & employer surveys, & the number of international faculty and students. The latter, where the list is more diverse, releases a list of 500 institutions, is comparatively a little more objective since it’s more concerned about the academic & research performance. And then there are higher metrics of counting the number of Field Medals and Nobel Prizes.  To put it succinctly, what we call an international standard university or a world-class university, becomes so, and rightly so, by graduating those who are in demand in labor market; those who carry out cutting-edge research, and have patents under their belt.

The World Bank, in one of its report on this subject, attempts to define a world-class university, in its own way. It makes the case that the superior results of these institutions (highly sought graduates, leading-edge research, and technology transfer) can essentially be attributed to three complementary sets of factors at play in the top universities: (a) a high concentration of talent (faculty and students), (b) abundant resources to offer a rich learning environment and to conduct advanced research, and (c) favorable governance features that encourage strategically vision, innovation, and flexibility and that enable institutions to make decisions and to manage resources without being encumbered by bureaucracy.

Above all, special attention has been given to the internationalization dimension of the university strategy. This is precisely what’s missing in the Indian context. Since the universities are mostly governmental and regulations are stringent, it’s extremely disadvantageous not to have international faculty and students to serve universities. The classroom experience at places like Harvard, where the smart kids do not just come from within the country, but from various continents of the globe with vast experiences, go a long way in making them the best in the field. Add to this the style of interactive two-way communication between the faculty and the students, 50 to 60% of knowledge & experience comes from your classmates. It becomes a microcosm of a smart world. In the current globalized world, if our students do not have international exposure, be that any field, they will have a hard time after they graduate.

When it comes to establishing a world-class university, there are three approaches to it. Again, this is discussed in detail in many reports, but mainly in the World Bank report cited above.

One, Governments could choose some existing universities with a clear potential to excel and work on it to make it world-class. This approach is called Picking Winners. Two, Governments could merge some existing institutions to come up with a new university that would achieve the type of synergies corresponding to a world-class institution. This is termed as the Hybrid Formula.  Three, Governments could create new world-class universities from scratch. And this is called a Clean-Slate Approach. In the next column, these approaches will be discussed along with examples from the countries where these have been implemented. However, to sum it all up for today, it’s clear that if we talk about J&K, there is no private university, and we aren’t sure if the government will adopt any of the aforementioned approaches. Therefore, for any entity that wants to come up with a world-class university, has to go for a clean slate approach.