How to make a world-class university
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.