Some months back I posted a note on the University rankings in the US. That has so far been the most visited page on this blog. Clearly, and not surprisingly, people are very interested in knowing what are some of the top universities in the US and in the world, and what makes them so. Students want to know where they might want to go for their studies and research, professors want to know how they compare to their peers, and administrators/policy makers want to know how to set metrics for university evaluation so the standards can be improved.
Every time a magazine or an organization publishes a new ranking of universities, the same familiar question is asked: What metrics were used to rank the universities, do those metrics really matter, and were those metrics weighed in favor of a preferred philosophy of education. It is not surprising then to see some ranking put US universities on top, while others try to push the European universities. Some others tends to make news because a whole set of universities from China and India occasionally make it to the top 10 lists.
Anyhow – so is there really a metric by which universities can be classified as world-class or not? Is there such a thing as an ideal university? Should there be and should all other universities try to emulate themselves in its mold as much as they could?
A simple answer (of mine) is No. I don’t believe there is a unique mold that works across the globe -neither for education, nor for research, and not for social service either. But there certainly are some attributes that are highly desirable in universities that aim to truly be considered world-class. To me, the real test of a world class university is when its academic faculty, researchers, students and alumni are able to compete internationally and succeed. When they are able to solve complex problems, when they are able to solve both real and abstract problems, and when they are able to advance the sum-total of human knowledge in a defined, measurable, and reproducible manner.
I am compiling below only some attributes that I would want in a world-class university. The list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope the comments will add to it. I am afraid the list will still show my own bias based on being trained in physical sciences at an engineering school in the USA, but I hope it will at least act as a starting point for your own thoughts, based on where you studied, performed research, taught, or want to….
- Open-mindedness and critical thinking: Research by its very nature means finding answers when non exist. We all start with hypotheses but we are open to being proven wrong.
- Broad and deep education: Its my attempt of suggesting liberal arts programs with significant attention paid to providing a deep understanding of the principal fields of study.
- Freedom of thought and opinion: Academics need to have the freedom to state their thoughts and opinions freely, even if they lie outside of their domain expertise. In reality, such mind factories keep the society honest and inquisitive.
- Access to global academic fraternity: Research and thinking is hardly ever a lonely activity. In fact, as the fields of science have become complex, they require people to interact frequently, via papers etc, at conferences & symposia, formal and informal settings. Students need to be connected with their peers outside so they learn the skill and art of networking early.
- Focus on fundamentals: There are many schools of thought on what those fundamentals are. Should it include the physical and biological sciences, mathematics, languages, ethics, music, athletics, analytical skills/problem-solving? I believe a strong emphasis on what the fundamentals are grounds the students into always finding a way to use them in their real world situations.
- Integration of research into education: Over the years I have realized that no learning is complete without actually “doing it”, and in education I think of doing it as another way of saying participation in research. Both undergraduate and graduate curricula should be highly research oriented, with close integration between principles taught in lectures and research experience.
- Adapting to changing realities: At world class universities labs and research centers emerge around interesting problems, and over time dissolve away. This shows the academy adapting their methods and focus to solving the pressing, real and ground-breaking problems. This does not mean chasing the fad of the day, but to continuously update teaching and research curricula to better train students.
- Introduction to role-models: Most successful individuals point to people they took on as role models during their school, college or university education. While I completed my Ph.D, I was exposed to a wide range of brilliant scientists, engineers, policy-makers, administrators, business persons and entrepreneurs. I stood in awe and then realized I could try to learn so much from them.
- Learning the art of learning: Some scholars graduate thinking that they have been handed an arsenal of tools that they can deploy to solve complex problems. Those are not graduate from world class universities. Those from top universities learn how to learn. They know they will never know enough, but they should carry the confidence that when needed, they know where to look for information, how to learn it, and how to use it.
- Finding pertinent problems to solve: At a recent commencement speech, a university president asked the graduating students to pay attention to the reasons why the problems they would work on were important, and how they affected the society or humanity. What he was trying to teach them was the important of finding important problems to work on – problems that they would have a passion for, and issues that wouldn’t reduce their hard work to menial repetitive tasks. Today some of the most pressing problems I see before humanity revolve around energy, environment, water, health and poverty. I can say I find passion inside me for them. What is your passion?
- Business/soft skills: Whether you graduate as a theoretical physicist, a chemical engineer, a n anthropologist, or a musician, it is hard to deny the importance of being able to create a market for your ideas and work. The customers may be radically different but the attributes required to develop these skills remain common. Why is your work important, why should anyone be interested in it, why should any one pay for it, and how can others learn to exploit in ways that may not be of interest to you but could be interesting for others?
- Last but not the least, social impact: Good universities are not satisfied just competing against each other on rankings. That, in fact, ranks quite low in their priorities. Good universities consider themselves to be stewards of of the society. They provide the people, infrastructure and resources that will be used to advance human existence on this earth. Universities try to foresee what humanity will be thinking decades in advance. They do not carry a magic crystal ball, but by engaging in honest and critical analysis of the different field, they predict early trends in society. Academic fields, after all, are one way to help and define societal shifts and priorities.
Anyways, here is an article by Pervez Hoodbhoy that got me started along this line of thinking.
World-class universities: a new holy grail
6 June 2007
For developing country universities to be ‘world-class’ they must be forward-looking and encourage an open environment, says Pervez Hoodbhoy.
Almost every country wants a ‘world-class university’, or claims to have at least one already.
Pakistan says it will establish nine in the next decade with help from Europe, and Qatar has imported local campuses of several well-known US universities to create an ‘education city’. The director general of the Organization of Islam Countries has appealed for at least 20 of its member states’ universities to be raised to ‘world-class quality’. There are similarly ambitious programs in China and India.
This is not surprising. Universities are the engines driving national growth in a world of fiercely competitive knowledge-based economies. But when can a university rightfully be called ‘world-class’?
Some, like the University of Jammu in Kashmir and the MARA University of Technology in Malaysia, stake their claim on certification from the International Standards Organization (ISO) — a dubious proposal because ISO merely looks at the adequacy of procedural and management processes.
Newspapers and journals compile university rankings, such as the UK’s Times Higher Education Supplement and a top-500 list compiled by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University, but these rankings often differ sharply from one another.
Comparing different universities may be like comparing oranges and apples, but let us create for ourselves a yardstick for measurements — the hypothetical ‘ideal university’.
The ideal university
This university is a bastion of critical inquiry covering every conceivable field of human endeavour. It has a first-rate faculty that does first-rate research on subjects like super-massive black holes and new extra-solar planets, quantum computation and the folding of proteins, the mating habits of macaws and tarantulas, and the extinct languages of Sumeria and Mesopotamia. Its professors are widely cited and known for important discoveries, their fame attracting talented researchers and students from across the world.
The ideal university spawns high-tech companies that create powerful computers and data compression techniques. It generates products and ideas upon which civilisations’ progress and survival depend, such as new crop varieties and renewable energy sources. It also does a splendid job of training engineers, doctors, economists, business managers and other professionals.
Most importantly this ideal university creates a modern citizenry capable of responsible and reasoned decision making. Its graduates can think independently and scientifically, have an understanding of history and culture, can create discourses on social and political issues, and are capable of coherent expression in speech and writing. They are in demand everywhere, both in academia and industry, nationally and internationally.
A tall order indeed. Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge and Oxford are mere approximations to this high ideal. So how does one create something akin to this in a developing country? Money and resources are necessary, but they are not enough.
Facing the challenges
Faculty is the biggest challenge. Unless there is an attractive research environment, a university can end up with second-rate foreign academics looking for cushy jobs. And unless the national pre-university education system is strong and a good university entrance selection system exists, local students cannot benefit from high-quality teaching.
Pakistan’s ambitious US$4.3 billion project to create nine Pakistani-European engineering universities with 50 per cent of the faculty and administrators from Europe is an example of how not to proceed.
The official opening of the first of these universities, in collaboration with a French consortium, is scheduled for October this year. But the situation on the ground is dismal. Because of Pakistan’s dangerous security situation, the French are absent from the university — as of March 2007 not a single French faculty member had joined.
But even if the Europeans come, there are not enough Pakistani staff to teach at these universities. And given the crisis in science education in Pakistan, there are simply not enough well-prepared students to take advantage of the high-level university instruction.
Another difficulty universities face is ensuring academic freedom. A university cannot do meaningful research or teach history, art, politics and the social sciences unless authority and conventional wisdom can be challenged.
Still more important is freedom of cultural and personal expression. In many Islamic countries, films, drama and music are frowned upon and sometimes attacked by student vigilantes who believe these violate religious norms. As a professor at a Pakistani university, I have observed that our female students, after being forced under the veil in recent years, have largely become timid, silent note-takers.
Ethical behaviour is also vital. Cheating in examinations, plagiarising research papers or projects and fabricating scientific data are enormously destructive of the institutional ethos — especially if insufficiently punished. In developing countries, national policies that give strong incentives for publications can end up creating a plagiarism pandemic.
Unlike hospitals or factories, well-functioning universities cannot be imported. They can only come from an organic, evolutionary process internal to a society. Being labelled ‘world-class’ is a nice token, but it is much more important for a university to have a forward-looking world view, an open environment, high ethical standards, a sense of collegiality and shared sense of purpose, and good governance practices.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is chairman of the department of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.