In Pursuit of 'World Class Universities'

The 'world class universities' tag is being used liberally across higher education institutions in India too. However, the contradictions within this WCU category are glaring.

Listen to this article:

In the last few years the label “world class universities” (WCU) has made frequent, sometimes dissonant, appearances in public, state and academic discussions, and often employed synonymously with “research universities” or “global research universities” (a coinage that emerged post-2005, from research conducted by the Fulbright New Century Scholars Programme). The “global university” tag is being used liberally across higher education institutions (HEIs) in India too now. The tag is more than just that. It flags several important aspects of a changing HEI system. And yet, the contradictions within this WCU category and what it entails are glaring.

WCUs signal the role an HEI will play in the global knowledge economy. This means becoming competitive at the highest possible levels in those domains where similar HEIs are situated. This include pedagogy, hiring processes, curriculum, enrolment procedures, faculty promotion, research priority and qualitative assessment systems, and infrastructure development.

In some ways, we see such competition in national institutions already: competitive funding for research, the rush for internationalisation of students and faculty through collaborations, setting up entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems, and smoothening the otherwise recalcitrant bureaucracy, which we euphemistically, and more from optimism, call “academic management”. All of these have been upscaled by those HEIs aspiring for WCU status.

At no point can we discount the fact that the pursuit of WCU tags is a part of the globalisation process. The economic globalisation process is accompanied as we now know by the globalisation of the knowledge economy, and no nation wants to be left out of at least this economy.

Therefore, in Institutionalization of World-Class University in Global Competition, Jung Cheol Shin and Barbara M. Kehm wrote: “Internationalisation of the university curriculum, sending students abroad for multicultural knowledge, and having faculty develop cooperative research projects across nations are some of the strategies explored by the global research university. Going global is the reaction of those universities to the new form of economy.”

The competition for funds, attention, enrolment that such HEIs embarked on is no different from the chase for a slice of the global pie of foreign investments. Research unsurprisingly shows that geographies of higher education have changed drastically where the geopolitics and geoeconomics undergo a “scalar shift …from the national to the global which prioritises academic practices and discourses conducted in particular places and fields of research”.

Also read: Why India’s NEET Stands Exposed When Compared to College Admissions Abroad

WCUs and the “research university”

A massive shift towards research is palpable. One of the most respected commentators on education, Philip Altbach, in a 2013 essay noted that countries around the world are trying to change their policies on funding, hiring, collaboration and researcher mobility to fuel their research. While admitting structural inequities between developed and developing nations in terms of publishing, libraries, professional organisations, that affect how they could compete for WCU status, Altbach noted that such universities do play a key role in the national development even as they aspire to join a global elite group.

Linking the research university system to the democratisation of knowledge, Altbach wrote: “Research university faculty, with more direct links to colleagues worldwide and better access to informal scholarly and scientific networks, find direct communication easier. Thus, research universities tend to be the point of international knowledge access to global academic systems and are the means that knowledge from developing countries is disseminated to the wider global knowledge network.”

In the pandemic years, Altbach’s argument about direct communications from/across such research universities and the sharing of knowledge has manifested in the form of calls for pooling information about COVID-19.

Countries such as Canada, the Scandinavian nations, China – which embarked on acquiring this WCU status back in the late 1980s – did very early what we see is happening in India now: identifying HEIs with more research potential, providing extra funding and (some) autonomy. Clearly making hierarchies and establishing institutional competitions, HEIs in these nations pulled off structural, administrative and policy changes for this purpose. HEIs began to be corporatised in terms of managerial modes, stringent quality assessments, mobility policies for faculty, among others. Performance-based funding, incentives and privileges became the norm.

Ideal education can only happen when both colleges and students customise. Credit: PTI

Representative image. Photo: PTI

The “reputation race”

Metrics and rankings acquired an unshakeable hold on processes, policies and imaginations in the HEIs. In her Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The Battle for World-Class Excellence (second edition, 2015), Ellen Hazelkorn wrote: “Around the world, rankings consciousness has risen sharply and, arguably inevitably, in response to globalisation and the pursuit of new knowledge as the basis of economic growth, and the drive for increased public accountability and transparency. Rankings are a manifestation of what has become known as the worldwide “battle for excellence”, and are perceived and used to determine the status of individual institutions, assess the quality and performance of the higher education system and gauge global competitiveness.”

Hazelkorn traced this “reputation race” (her term) to the nations’ perceived need to participate in the world, well beyond national borders, local requirements and, in many cases, local constraints. She also noted a key shift: education moved away from social expenditure to being a part of the production economy. This last has transformed higher education as nothing else has: an emphasis on productivity, value-for-money, innovation, entrepreneurship, students-as-consumers and education-as-consumer-good.

Rankings are instruments of mediatisation of universities. But, as Michelle Stack notes in her 2016 book, “Rankings have become powerful mediators of the meaning of educational quality”. The correlation between ranking and the assured quality of education (both teaching and learning) has had its share of detractors.

WCUs occupy the top slots in all rankings and become then, rightly or wrongly, not just the front runners for international enrolment, greater funding and visibility but also set the benchmarks for others to follow and adopt. To not participate in rankings then runs the risk of losing funding, incurring state – the usual funder, especially in developing nations – displeasure, diminishing enrolment and placements for students: in short, the loss is massive.

Also read: How Meritorious and Inclusive Are Our Institutions of Higher Education?

The questions around world class universities

As noted elsewhere, what kind of performance counts and which fields need to be prioritised have never been easy decisions, nor has it been possible to have any consistency in these decisions. Further, a set of questions have emerged around WCUs.

Is the WCU model the only kind? With “deemed to be universities”, Institutions of National Importance, Institutions of Eminence, the polytechnic, the training institutes under the CSIR – the sheer variety of institutions serving the purpose of education (ostensibly – for now, we will not examine what they have produced in the years of whatever investment has been put into them), would “WCU” be a possible tag for all of them? For example, is there a “World Class Polytechnic” tag for them to compete for?

When and how does monetisable research, training and teaching determined by industry requirements – the emphases in WCUs – trump basic research, critical thinking and abstract reasoning skills? Does the patent-publish regime become the sole arbiter of performance and responsibilities of the HEI sector, especially when the terms of this regime are, in more ways than one can count, set by huge publishers and conglomerates and to which, then, national systems of education bow?

Does the quest for WCU’s levels of excellence and performance come at the cost of, say, social equity? Can both agendas be served equally well by state policies that get increasingly tailored to a global pattern of higher education, output and outcome? As in the case of globalisation, would the push for research excellence cost us in terms of egalitarian access and/or hiring formulae?

Would the adoption of global standards, paradigms and norms of research, and what counts as knowledge, produce a flattening of diversity in these areas? Would the global paradigm come at the cost of local, diverse, and different modes of thinking? And would the adherence to global agendas and paradigms be in the national interest?

Is the obsession with rankings and associated metrics producing a paranoiac pursuit of some vague ideal or are they really enabling greater accountability and responsibility from the HEIs? In the words of Sharon Rider et al, the rankings and their algorithms are “agents and effects of a technical ideal that lends a spurious objectivity to the processes involved in ranking, which, in turn, are integrated into marketing with ever finer differentiation and new sectors”. Does WCU pursuit mean only marketisation of education, or can it be something more.

We turn now to partial responses to the above.

Also read: What the New Education Policy Will Mean For Universities in India

WCUs as nodal centres

To return briefly to Altbach, WCUs serve as critical centres and engines of change in their own nations because, unlike other institutions, they can. He wrote: “The research university academic communities have the motivation, knowledge, and commitment to participate in cultural, political, and social dialogue in society. They also have access to participate in the technologies and technical skills. In developing countries, especially, research university academics are among the few constituencies who have these skills.”

Altbach extends this argument in favour of WCUs when speaking of the challenge of WCUs: “Scientific globalisation means that participants are linked to the norms of the disciplines and of scholarship that are established by the leaders of research, located in the major universities in the United States and other Western nations. … Involvement in world science means, in general, adherence to established research paradigms and themes.

The ‘adherence’ to paradigms established and practised by the top universities means raising the bar in our own HEIs – although this implies, as argued elsewhere, ensuring that priorities stay stable for a period of time to produce results. (It also means accepting global standards and norms of academic integrity – that very difficult thing to do, if recent cases are any indication!)

This means, WCUs in any nation can serve as nodal centres for global knowledge economies but also as centres for their own nation’s field-defining and field-changing research agendas, output and pedagogy. There is, then, no contradiction between being WCU and a national university, given that both serve to increase the quality and outcome of research. Thus HEIs in India, aspiring and mandated to reach WCU status, have been instructed by the funding and monitoring agency that their publications need to be benchmarked against publications, in the respective disciplines, of the top 100 universities in the world. And, while this may not significantly alter the nature of the already top universities (the IISc, IITs) in a nation such as India, citation and publication figures – one indicator of quality research output – are likely to rise, ensuring continued funding, more collaborations and mobility, further fuelling better output.

For science communication to be undertaken in earnest, public institutions must employ a realistic definition of ‘the public’, in particular one that accounts for and caters to people across caste lines and socioeconomic status. Representative image. Credit: IISc

Representative image (IISc). Photo: IISc

The pursuit of WCU-type HEIs changes the education system from the inside. From the older, curiosity-driven and research-for-research’s sake model (often dismissed as the “ivory-tower” of academia), the nature of research changes into one with greater social and public accountability. This involves HEIs being asked for transformative research, research that directly addresses social problems (which reading Aristotle’s Poetics may not) and a greater connection to the social order in which the HEI is located.

There are direct, and positive, outcomes, as other commentators note: students passing out of such WCUs are the most sought after, the cutting-edge research and technology transfer generate revenue and more funds. Jamil Salmi and NC Liu wrote in Paths to a World-Class University of the features of such an HEI: (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) favourable governance features that encourage strategic vision, innovation, and flexibility and that enable institutions to make decisions and to manage resources without being encumbered by bureaucracy.

It cannot be disputed that these features of a WCU if adopted into any university, built up over the years, will change the quality of education at the national level itself and fuel the necessary changes in curriculum, infrastructure, quality of students graduating, and others.

Benchmarking tools such as rankings and WCU criteria could be perceived not as antagonistic to local HEI cultures but as strategic. As Hazelkorn suggested, driven by the need to acquire WCU-level competitiveness and advantages, “the focus on quality has helped drive up institutional performance, providing some degree of public accountability and transparency”.  And this last is beyond dispute.


Perhaps the answer lies in a decade-old paper from Ellen Hazelkorn (again) where she argued that retaining the public interest model is paramount. She wrote: “Government[s] should look to establish collaborative clusters of institutions working together to make the system-as-a-whole world-class…what matters is how governments prioritise skilled labour force, equity, regional growth, better citizens, future Einsteins and global competitiveness, and translate them into policy.”

Those worried about the insidious and more often overt globalisation processes – but those worried and protesting are themselves not averse to applying for the Fulbrights, the foreign fellowships/jaunts – manifest in the WCU may want to in fact ask how best the WCU tag, its funds, collaborations can be translated into a program of action. This latter may then equip students, who mostly compete at national levels, to become thinkers, skilled labour, leaders on a higher scale with the heightened quality (possibly) offered by HEIs who have raised their bar.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.