National competition and global cooperation in the world-class university sector

In a paper presented at the 7th International Conference on World-Class Universities (WCU-7), Professor Simon Marginson argues that world-class universities (WCUs) are crucial to meeting the challenges facing human communities.

In analysing WCUs’ production of global common goods, he brings together two separate conversations, on globalisation and national/global tensions, and on public goods and common goods.

He highlights the fact that the value of education at all levels is not confined to individuals but is foremost a common good whose benefits spill over to the whole community. Yet much of the discussion about higher education focuses on the private market value of individual graduates. As he points out, WCUs are often seen (including by themselves and their marketing departments) as producers of valuable private goods for what is a minority of the population.

He argues that this function is sustainable only when it is accompanied by genuine commitment to opening up the universities to under-represented families, on a significant scale, and there is a broad social consensus about social equality and solidarity in which WCUs are visible contributors.

Similarly, education is not just a national common good, but a global one. Universities have become institutions of a global world, in addition to assuming their traditional local and national roles. The answers to global challenges (energy, water and food security, urbanisation, climate change, etc) are increasingly dependent on technological innovation and sound scientific advice brokered to decision-makers.

Professor Marginson warns that at a time when globalisation is widely questioned and national identity stridently asserted, both national security and local university missions could become positioned in opposition to the international mission. He concludes that balancing the global, national and local contributions of WCUs, while continuing to advance their essential role in building the common global good, is more difficult but more important than ever.