Skip to content Skip to navigation

The demand for ‘world-class universities’: What is driving the race to the top?

European institutions, such as Cambridge, helped initially define what it means to be a university. (Print c. 1840 by John Le Ceux, of Second Court, St. John's College, Cambridge)
European institutions, such as Cambridge, helped initially define what it means to be a university. (Print c. 1840 by John Le Ceux, of Second Court, St. John's College, Cambridge)
Stanford professor Francisco Ramirez points to the rise of global university rankings as one aspect of how the world is coming to share a common notion of what constitutes a university. (Photo by Chris Wesselman)
Stanford professor Francisco Ramirez points to the rise of global university rankings as one aspect of how the world is coming to share a common notion of what constitutes a university. (Photo by Chris Wesselman)

The demand for ‘world-class universities’: What is driving the race to the top?

Stanford professor Francisco Ramirez's research has traced how the very notion of higher education is undergoing a fundamental shift.

In an increasingly globalized world, the picture of the tranquil university steeped in quaint intellectual pursuits and buffered from real-world concerns appears to be rapidly fading. Institutes of higher learning seem to be shedding the “ivory tower” image and embracing a vision of well-oiled engines of research that promote economic growth.

The idea that such shift is under way is presented in a recent article by Stanford professor of education Francisco Ramirez and his colleague, Dijana Tiplic, of the University of Oslo, in which they highlight how higher education in Europe — where the very first universities were established centuries ago — is conforming to new notions of management and productivity rather than age-old traditions of scholarship. Among its findings the paper, published in December in Higher Education, shows how academic journals about higher education are framing their discussions more around concepts of efficiency and performance instead of preserving and imparting knowledge.

The paper continues work by Ramirez and other researchers that chronicle what has become a growing concern in policy circles, as well as the public at large: the emphasis on “world-class universities.” While such institutions are now commonly viewed as vital to advance a nation’s development, scholars such as Ramirez say that conventional wisdom needs to be scrutinized. “Too many countries believe that if they don’t expand in this regard, they won’t be taken seriously on the world stage,” Ramirez explained. “Unfortunately, the notion of the world-class university has taken on a life of its own.”  

* * *

Ramirez’s work emerges out of his long-time sociological research on how nation states are constructed historically and are influenced by world models of progress. Born in the Philippines and coming of age during his country’s own period of political turmoil in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his research has in part focused on the growth of education internationally and its relationship to national identity and development.

His and Tiplic’s recent paper looks at the university in Europe, where the institution had its origin, and shows how it is changing under the driving influence of the Bologna process, in which 47 nations have agreed to a common sets of standards for higher education credentialing and organization over the past two decades. Ramirez and Tiplic show that while in 1900 universities possessed national flavors and distinctiveness, by the start of the 21st century, they had become much more similar across borders.

The two researchers also demonstrate the rise in key words related to organizational management, performance, and quality in European education journals between 1990 and 2009. “This signifies a growing trend toward seeing the university as an engine of progress rather than a symbol of national history and character,” says Ramirez.

The paper lays out reforms in Europe that have made university systems compatible across boundaries so as to facilitate student and faculty mobility between countries in the way that U.S. universities allow for movement across states. Although this leads to greater efficiency — and is one of the measures needed to achieve “world class” status — such homogenization can also lead to the loss of qualities and strengths that can make each university unique, Ramirez says.

What does “world class” really mean? “For some it means being a superpower in terms of science and technology research. It’s connected to the idea that universities are going to produce technological innovations,” says Ramirez.

As he notes, such criteria have been emphasized by the growth in university rankings –– a phenomenon that corresponds with the rise in management-related keywords in the educational literature. Newly emergent reviews include the Academic Ranking of World Universities published by a private Shanghai-based consultancy, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings with support from the multinational information corporation Thomson Reuters, and the QS World University Rankings published by the British company Quacquarelli Symonds.

The influence of these rankings, in turn, contributes to a global movement away from the old European model of the university as knowledge “conservator” –– particularly in the humanities –– and toward a new model of the university as knowledge “producer” –– particularly in the sciences.

“The Shanghai rankings have an especially strong bias with respect to science and technology,” Ramirez said. The system slots universities according to several indicators of academic or research performance, such as alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, highly cited researchers, papers published in Nature and Science, and papers indexed in major citation indices. Such rankings are contributing to what Ramirez called the “science-ization” of the university. They stress research over teaching, journal articles over books, and publications in English over those in other languages, he said.

Stephen Heyneman, a professor of international education policy at Vanderbilt University, pointed, for instance, to a particular wrinkle in the Shanghai rankings. “By their standards you can have a highly competitive university that has no history department, or that’s weak in the social sciences,” he said.

“The humanities are definitely taking a beating in all this,” Ramirez said.

Heading most of the rankings are U.S. universities such as Harvard, Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The first top non-American universities to appear in all rankings are Britain’s Cambridge and Oxford, peppered among other American powerhouses like Cal Tech and Princeton. In the 2013 Shanghai rankings, it’s not until number 21 that one finds the likes of the University of Tokyo.  Indeed, U.S. universities dominate these listings altogether, and discussions of the rankings hold them up as the very model of excellence for others to emulate.

“With the universalizing of universities the sense of national distinctiveness has been undercut,” Ramirez said. “That puts a lot of pressure on universities to compete and make claims that they are going to be ‘world class.’” It has spurred the ambitions of many countries to have their educational institutions appear –– or move up on ­­–– the rankings lists.

Heyneman called it a kind of “educational arms race.”

According to Ramirez, governments such as those of China, Saudi Arabia and South Korea have made public commitments to develop or produce a certain number of world-class universities within specific timeframes. “They’re not at all shy,” he said.

European universities, on the other hand, have been more reluctant. “They’re saying, ‘We invented this thing, and now you’re going to tell us that we need to compete with newer developments in newer countries?’” Ramirez said.

* * *

Ramirez’s recent paper follows research on the transformation of the university that he began more than a decade ago. In a paper in 2002 in European Educational Research Journal, he devoted one section to detailing the historical differences between Stanford and Oxford — and how the chasm between the two was closing. He noted, for example, that Oxford was acquiring a business school and had begun to “market” itself to compete for students –– things Stanford, like other leading U.S. universities, had long embraced. In another paper, published in the journal Higher Education in 2012, Ramirez and his colleague Tom Christensen compared the Stanford Graduate School of Education with the School of Social Sciences at the University of Oslo, showing how both were embracing the trend toward organizational development and standards.

All of this has led to his more recent paper, in which he observes what appears to be a growing global consensus that having high-quality universities is the key to progress. And while in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s equal access to education for women, minorities, and the economically challenged was seen as the primary fuel for that progress, these days the focus is on transforming universities so that they may better drive the economic engine. That means a growing emphasis away from equity issues and toward matters concerning management, organization and quality.

* * *

Ramirez is somewhat skeptical about these developments. He points out that the increasing presence of organizational consultants at the International Conference on World Class Universities, held the past five years in Shanghai, for example, “suggests the notion that you can engineer a world class university like you can engineer software.” “I’m not so sure,” he says.

More important, Ramirez maintains the evidence is weak that higher education –– and, in particular, world-class universities –– have a significant impact on economic growth. “To improve an economy, you need a lot of people with technical skills, but you don’t necessarily need prestigious universities to train them,” he observes. “High levels of inequality and poverty are much stronger impediments to economic growth than the quality of schooling.”

The Stanford sociologist is concerned that the pressure to produce such high-status educational institutions is actually strapping some developing countries, which he contends are mistakenly funneling resources from other, more needed projects. “For countries with limited resources, the data I’ve worked with suggests it’s better to invest in lower levels of schooling than to channel most of your resources to one or two universities so that they will be ranked 85 instead of 150 five years from now,” Ramirez said.

Not all researchers in the field of higher education agree. Philip Altbach, a professor of education at Boston College who specializes in international trends in higher education, noted, “Yes, some countries are putting too great an emphasis on rising up in the global rankings or on trying to be like Harvard, and in that sense I contend that resources are being misused. But even relatively poor countries need to invest in at least one institution that focuses on research, and that means producing a world-class university. Most countries are part of this global knowledge economy and need some capacity to produce well-educated people and interact at an equal level with the top universities and producers of science everywhere in the world.”

Heyneman holds that universities indeed can affect community development and even national competitiveness, but notes, “they don’t necessarily have to be wealthy research institutions to do it.” Creating world-class universities becomes more problematic, he agrees, for developing countries. “Nations such as Nigeria, Malawi, and Kazakhstan, for example, are engaging in a tremendous waste of resources by concentrating their investments at the top level of education,” he says. “Their ambitions exceed their abilities to sustain such institutions. They’re lavishly pooling resources basically in search of prestige.”

Despite such issues, Ramirez says the drive toward producing prestige institutions is probably not going away. With this in mind, he suggests that countries first take a step back to evaluate whether investing in a world-class university is really right for them at this time –– or whether it’s a goal that should put off for the future. For those who move ahead with such projects, he recommends “thinking of it as a long-term process rather than a short-term fix.”

And, he advises, “don’t assume you can enact the whole script –– sometimes Hamlet doesn’t translate well into other languages.” He suggests that education leaders identify strengths and niches that can be made world class, rather than trying to move an entire university in that direction.  

Ramirez is currently engaged in research assessing the extent to which professional development currently taking place in universities in fact leads to greater empowerment for students and faculty. He is also working with Scandinavian investigators to compare university trends with those in the health-care sector, asking whether hospitals should also have goals, and what an international ranking system might mean for such institutions.

“The trend to produce world-class universities, to my mind, represents neither pure progress nor pure wickedness, with the ‘bad guys’ taking over,” Ramirez concludes. “The bottom line is that countries and universities need to think carefully and pay attention to what they’re doing, rather than just automatically following the pack.”

Marguerite Rigoglioso, a freelance writer, contributes frequently to the Stanford Graduate School of Education website and publications.

Get the Educator

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Back to the Top