Monday, 5 July 2010

Great universities - What are they and how do we create them?

Some would probably say that to get a great university, what you need is a Royal Charter followed by four-hundred years of history. However, it's not that simple and many tremendously successful universities around the world have developed to their present greatness without the benefit of such a background. However, my interest in this question, 'what makes a university great?', was reawakened by two articles in the latest Times Higher Education (THE) plus my recent reading of a book on The Great American University (Jonathan R. Cole, published by Public Affairs, New York, 2009).

The THE articles were fascinating. According to Philip Altbach who directs the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, as regards creating a great university 'everyone wants one, no one knows what it is, and no one knows how to get one'. In his search to discover what makes a university great, Graeme Harper, chair of Creative Universities and Professor at Bangor University, has spent a decade visiting universities all over the world. He has found elements of greatness in many institutions - linked to their ideals, the creation and re-creation of knowledge, an obsession with world class research, and often less tangible things such as the layout and design of their buildings, and their relationships with local communities. It's all very complicated!

In contrast, Jonathan Cole, author of The Great American University, thinks he has found an answer. However, his focus is mostly on the modern American research university, a specific and fairly recent type of institution, astonishingly effective in the production and transmission of knowledge, and responsible - directly or indirectly - for many of the discoveries and innovations that make our early 21st century lives what they are. For Cole, a great university is characterised by a distinct set of core values underpinning thirteen key ingredients. The values have to do with freedom of inquiry, academic freedom, the open communication of ideas, the creation of new knowledge (and hence a remarkable openness to new ideas), the vitality of the academic community, and so on.

To many academics, I imagine such values might seem quite mundane and unremarkable - but they are actually quite rare, both historically and geographically. Thus numerous universities now highly regarded and espousing many of these values have experienced restrictions on their studies, and on the freedom of expression of new ideas, in their past. And many universities even today still have to live with such restrictions, imposed for political, religious and ideological reasons. This is one reason why there are no truly great universities in some large regions of our world.

The thirteen key ingredients identified by Cole are as follows (pp110-116):

1. Faculty research productivity
2. Quality and impact of research
3. Grant and contract support
4. Honorific awards
5. Access to highly qualified students
6. Excellence in teaching
7. Physical facilities and advanced information technologies
8. Large endowments and plentiful resources
9. Large academic departments
10. Free inquiry and academic freedom
11. Location
12. Contribution to the public good
13. Excellent leadership

Given this list - which might look a bit different over here in Europe, and with which one can easily quibble over some of the details - how would we proceed to build a new 'great university'? My reading of Cole's book suggests that points 1 and 2 in the above list are absolutely critical. In other words, we would first assemble a group of leading and highly productive academics in selected fields, fund them for a few years, say 5-10 years initially, don't tell them what to do, and wait to see what they create. If they are really good, they will quickly start to attract funding for research and facilities, and to attract good students, especially if they have chosen an attractive location. However, don't expect quick results. For although one might not require the 400 years I mentioned at the start of this post, I do think it would be exceptionally hard to create a great university in less than a few decades.

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