Higher education has clearly been a key to the US ascendancy over the past 100 years. For developing nations, a vibrant higher education sector is seen as crucial to development. I have been fortunate to work on this topic with Zoltan Acs, Richard Florida, Lee Fritschler, and Phil Auerswald (new book out: The Coming Prosperity).
Doug Lederman at Inside Higher Ed explores the developing world question of building world class universities versus educating the masses. From Lederman:
But the issue of whether developing nations should emphasize excellence or access as they build and strengthen their higher education systems undergirded much of the discussion of the three-day event, flaring at times into sharp disagreement among the attendees over “the extent to which the emerging world should be part of the educational arms race,” says Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne.
Different observers would define that race differently, and with varying degrees of sympathy and scorn. But in general, most experts on higher education would equate it with the push to have institutions in the top of worldwide rankings (or “league tables,” as they’re called in much of the world) — rankings dominated by criteria such as research funding and student selectivity as opposed to measures that emphasize democratic student access.
Those rankings have historically been dominated by American and European institutions, but many countries in Asia and other parts of the world have focused their energy (and resources) on building “world-class” institutions that are capable of elbowing their way into the ever-growing number of international rankings such as Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings and Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities. The institutions do so both to build their internal research and leadership capacities and to carve out a niche on the world stage.
But doing so often takes enormous resources, given the large expense required to engage in high-quality academic research (particularly in the sciences), and can raise questions about relative priorities given the perceived need in virtually every country to produce more and better-educated rank and file citizenries to feed economic growth.
Later in the piece,
The question of how much attention developing nations should pay to building elite institutions rather than those that serve the masses was raised most directly in comments by Jo Ritzen, president emeritus of the Netherlands’ Maastricht University and now a professorial fellow at the university’s Graduate School of Governance. Ritzen, the former Dutch minister of education, argued that the symposium should encourage every developing country to develop at least one major university — “centers of excellence” — to ensure that they are positioned to produce as well as distribute knowledge, and to play on a world stage.
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Ritzen said he was not framing developing nations’ pursuit of world class universities as an either-or proposition. “Mass higher education is necessary for a country to belong to the league of developed countries,” he said. “At the same time, it’s very important to make sure that you are also going to be part of the world elite…. There doesn’t have to be a conflict. The Chinese do exactly this. There is no question about the broadening of access in China, but also no question about the fact that some Chinese universities are elite.”
The recommendation for at least one center of excellence is interesting and exactly the opposite (IMHO) of how the US developed such great universities. Competition between cities, universities, states and even regions has led to the growth of ‘world class universities’ across the US. Moreover, many of these elite universities (see history of William Harper at University of Chicago and Charles Van Hise at the University of Wisconsin) built to serve the masses at the same time that they build world class PhD programs and research institutes.