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How to make a world-class university

August 12, 2009

There are three elements that are required for a university to claim a place with the world’s elite institutions, argues Jamil Salmi. Dr. Salmi is the author of a recent World Bank report describing the attributes of the world’s best institutions – those that figure prominently and consistently in the top of the various rankings – and has written a summary article available online through Forbes.

So, what does it take?

  1. Top-notch students and professors. This is perhaps not surprising, but Dr. Salmi points out that the top universities compete internationally for students. At Harvard, Columbia, and Cambridge, he points out, roughly 20% of students are from outside national borders.
  2. Lots of money. Especially in the US, huge endowments at public research universitied provide stability and flexibility not afforded at publicly-funded schools. This stable funding allows these institutions to plan long-term, instead of focusing on constant budget battles. Dr. Salmi points out that at the richest of the US schools, endowment funds provide roughly $40,000 annually per student; in Canada that figure is roughly $1,000.
  3. Freedom and autonomy. It isn’t a coincidence that most of the elite universities are private institutions, free from the bureaucracy and public standards that impede flexibility. These institutions are more agile and able to adapt to changing conditions. Beyond this, though, is a commitment to unrestrained inquiry, academic autonomy, and creative thinking that allows innovation to flourish.

The presidents of Canada’s biggest research institutions have recently been discussing how to get Canadian universities (their own, of course) into the world’s elite. Dr. Salmi warns, however, that joining this club may not be in our best interest:

A word of caution: Countries rushing to build elite research universities should consider whether they can afford the huge price of building and running such institutions without short-changing the rest of the country’s education system.

This seems to echo the sentiments from the presidents of small and medium sized institutions that I mentioned yesterday. Canada’s big five universities already receive a very disproportionate amount of available research funding. Where will the rest of the money come from?

Instead, I think our universities should strive to embrace the other elements of Dr. Salmi’s plan – academic integrity, freedom, and diversity will benefit schools of all sizes. The big five can work to increase their endowments, and perhaps the government can help out by making such donations more attractive for donors, and our universities may evolve to join the world’s elite without overhauling our entire system.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    August 12, 2009 07:29

    “Canada’s big five universities already receive a very disproportionate amount of available research funding.”

    Why is this disproportionate? The 40% of funding attracted by those five universities is a consequence of competitive, peer-reviewed funding based on excellence. Are you suggesting that the deck should be stacked against these principles in order to assist the smaller institutions? I would hope not as it would undermine the competitiveness of all of our institutions. Indeed, any university that does not support the principle of meritocracy should fold its tent.

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      August 12, 2009 08:15

      Jim, thanks for the comment. My meaning was unclear – I meant “disproportionate” strictly relative to enrolment, an admittedly rough measure of size. The big five have combined undergraduate and graduate student populations of approximately 200,000 students, which accounts for roughly 20% of Canadian university enrolment – their funding awards therefore represent a two-fold outperformance when compared to student enrolment. I certainly don’t mean to impugn the research funding awarded to these universities – it is, by rough definition, precisely proportionate to their research performance.

      I certainly don’t advocate stacking the deck against these institutions by reassigning funding proportionately by student enrolment. At the same time, I think that increasing their funding – as a tangible recognition of their role as “elite” research institutions – would have the opposite effect, ie. will stack the deck against the smaller institutions. Many of these universities are world-leaders in their more restricted specialties, and they no doubt outperform the “G5” in competition for funding in these areas.

      I guess this is to say that the current “meritocratic” system seems to work pretty well in allocating funding where excellence is being achieved. This method of awarding research money results in higher funding for our top research universities but allows, in principle, any Canadian university to join the “world class”.

  2. SpongeBob permalink
    August 12, 2009 08:49

    The Presidents of non-G5 universities are absolutely right in pointing out the quality of the research performed in their institutions. One wonders why the G5s want to concentrate on research and leave undergrad teaching to “lesser” institutions. They forget that the primary output of universities is HQP, undergrad as well as post-grad. If we are serious about increasing R&D and tech transfer in Canada, we should not concentrate too much on super high profile PhD students, when the Canadian academic system cannot absorb them. We need a balance between these and some with a strong and broad training, including good contact with industry. Undergrads from all academic origins should also be in contact with high profile researchers during the course of their studies. If we put most undergrads in non-G5, how will this be possible?
    The behaviour of the Presidents from G5 universities is utterly selfish and typical of “want-it-all” bullies. This applies also to their questioning about NRC. Most strong scientific countries do not confide all the research to academia, they also have strong research bodies such as CNRS, Max-Planck, Fraunhöfer and various national labs. It is easy – and somewhat mean – to question the relevance of NRC when the Government makes no secret of its disdain for its own employees (civil servants). Because they operate in a different environment with different constraints, universities of various sizes and national labs all contribute to scientific diversity, which is in my opinion very important – just as biodiversity is – in a constantly changing world. Short term “productivity” does not necessarily grant better common good.

  3. b0rk permalink
    August 14, 2009 08:58

    There are three characteristics I find interesting in the Canadian system:

    1) The cost of undergraduate education, while not cheap, is not entirely out of reach of the middle class.
    2) The quality of the very worst schools, while not great, is still pretty reasonable.
    3) Research funding and graduate student funding, which mostly comes from the “tricouncil” of CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC, is geographically spread around (for what I presume are largely political reasons).

    #3 is probably in some ways a bad thing: We get a bloat of graduate programmes, and a bloat of research-intensive universities, many of which are quite poor quality, whose PhD graduates serve only as grist for the sessional mill or go to work in industry in jobs they could easily have done with a terminal master’s degree. It also leads to a huge increase in research produced, with little commensurate benefit to society (i.e., low quality research that never goes anywhere but the conference circuit and small, ‘B’-level journals). And the money that goes to make the University of New Brunswick a doctoral-degree-granting institution is diverted away from other potential targets — like making our very best schools (U of T, UBC and McGill, for instance) — competitive at a global level.

    Now, the problem is that fixing the parochialism of our funding system probably has an impact on #2. I am guessing that the spread-the-wealth approach probably also spreads around teaching talent, facilities and equipment that have an impact on the quality of undergrad education even at the lowest rung in the totem pole.

    What I would love to see is more focused, more concentrated spending of tricouncil funds — and more federal and provincial money to also foster excellence in teaching — prestigious, competitive teaching fellowships, money for novel and innovative teaching approaches, a more competitive system for tenure awarded on the basis of teaching, etc.

    In other words, Canada needs to have fewer Manitobas and more St. FXs. Less ‘comprehensive’ schools that don’t even register on the global map; more small undergraduate-focused, teaching-focused schools that provide reasonably priced, high-quality undergraduate education.

  4. September 17, 2010 06:35

    World class university should be established by pre-eminent professional trilogy; teaching&learning, research, and community
    engagement with the best maintenance functions by devotion of
    of community scholars, and create intensive/extensive research universities.


  1. University of Alberta, research money, nanotechnology, and those recent Chairs of Excellence « FrogHeart

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