The evolution of world-class universities – a new model in China?

In a new article, Professor Simon Marginson reviews the evolution of ‘world-class universities’.

He defines these as research-intensive universities with significant global presence, and investigates whether China’s successful evolution of word-class universities, or ‘world-class multiversities’ as he describes them, constitute a distinctive university model.

The article argues that larger conditions such as globalisation, organisational modernisation and marketisation have created three trends in higher education widespread across the world: massification, the world-class university movement, and organisational (single institutional) expansion.

In recent years these trends have led to the decline in the number of specialist universities but a growth in large, globalised, multi-purpose and multi-disciplinary universities, or ‘multiversities’, to use the term first developed by Clark Kerr.

World-class universities provide national prestige and vital research capacity for economies and governments. They also have their own drivers, their own desire to cut a larger and more prestigious position in the world. The article highlights the fact that elite world-class universities gain status and strategic advantage through both (1) growth and expansion of scope, and also, in contrast, (2) selectivity and research concentration.

The number of recognised world-class universities in the Chinese mainland has grown significantly in the last 10 years. Professor Marginson discusses the fact that while China uses globally familiar measures such as university competition and performance regimes, it blends these with state-university relations where government is closer to universities than in, say, the United States, with university leaders appointed by official ministries. Yet the model delivers; there is sufficient intellectual autonomy for science to flourish. China’s leading universities are now almost as strong as the leading American universities in research in the physical sciences and engineering, and have actually moved ahead of US universities in research in mathematics and complex computing. The flourishing of the physical sciences cluster in China is as much because of, not despite, state commitment and supervision.

Yet other disciplinary fields are not as strong, including medicine, the life sciences, social sciences and the non sciences; and China’s world-class universities have yet to develop a distinctive teaching/learning mission that draws on the deep well of Confucian thinking about learning and self-cultivation. Nor has China yet fully joined the strong national traditions in medicine and humanities to global disciplinary conversations. If China can develop stronger and more internationalised scholarship and research in the humanities and social sciences, a more distinctive university identity and model may develop.

The world-class multiversity: global commonalities and national characteristics is published in Frontiers of Education in China.