20 April 2018
by Rajani Naidoo

World-class systems rather than world-class universities

Professor Rajani Naidoo makes the case for world-class systems rather than world-class universities in University World News.

Equality in higher education is a global issue, particularly in relation to the current fetish for global competition. There is a blind faith that competition in all areas of higher education will automatically lead to positive outcomes, including greater equality. However, in general different types of competition interact to create major barriers to enhancing equality.

At the apex of this competition is the battle for world-class university status. This is a battle that is fought between the most prestigious universities in the richest countries. However, the ripples are felt far beyond the elite battlefields. World-class universities become aspirational models for institutions everywhere, even those that have little hope of playing a starring role in global rankings.

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has remarked that it is not individual universities that contribute to inequality in any given society, but the combined workings of the higher education system as a whole.

In highly stratified systems, a major share of national resources is swallowed up by universities identified as world class. These universities are tasked with a research and prestige mission that is often diametrically opposed to enhancing equality. Few benefits trickle down to support the mass institutions that admit large numbers of students from the most disadvantaged sectors of society.

Given the national resources consumed, in addition to chasing prestige, should world-class universities be tasked with a shared responsibility for building capacity in higher education systems as a whole? Should scarce national resources be focused on creating world-class systems rather than world-class universities?

Combined and unequal development

Professor Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, has very helpfully extended Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of national fields to conceptualise global fields of higher education. The power contests in this global field lead to what I have termed ‘combined and unequal development’ in higher education.

There are growing numbers of high-status, well-resourced universities in poor countries that recruit the elite in the country. These universities partner with the global elite, apply decontextualised measures of academic merit based on performance (rather than potential) and connect graduates to global power nodes.

At the same time, the richest countries in the world have rising numbers of institutions designated as low status. These recruit the most disadvantaged students in the country. They are poorly resourced and constrained to their locales.

A further important way in which global rankings and the battle for world-class status undermine equality is by hindering diversity and differentiation. Clearly, a higher education system of diverse institutions offering high-quality academic and vocational choices with inter-connected progression routes would be an important step towards greater equality.

However, government funding and policy frameworks are generally set up to reward the research elite and are not adequately differentiated to value and incentivise different missions and diverse institutions. This leads to isomorphism in which less prestigious institutions mimic the most powerful, becoming pale and dysfunctional shadows of the former.

This in turn leads to a system that is not differentiated for choice or function, but one that is largely differentiated according to status and resources.

In addition, the argument that world-class universities in highly stratified systems are the only route through which national innovation systems can be enhanced is challenged by the existence of successful innovation systems in countries such as Finland and Germany which have encompassed higher education systems with flatter hierarchies and diverse academic and vocational institutions.

The direct contribution of world class universities to national innovation is also not clear, particularly since these universities are often linked to multinational corporations contributing to global innovation. It may thus be important to understand how higher education, as a system with diverse institutions, can contribute as a whole to national innovation.

A holistic approach to inequality

What options do we have to remedy this situation? First, we could try to stop policy-makers focusing on world-class universities as if these exist in a vacuum. Second, we could redirect the focus through our own research and policy advocacy to develop strategies on how national and global systems of higher education could potentially interact to reduce inequality.

Third, we need to avoid dichotomising access, quality education and research excellence. It is very important to avoid seeing these as necessary trade-offs, but to find ways to link these in a positive sum manner.

A recent example in Colombia shows how equality and quality can be brought together and gives an idea of how research excellence can drive wider social policies.

José Restrepo, the president of a prestigious Colombian university, has written recently about how leading universities are responding to the historic peace process in Colombia after decades of violent conflict. He has explained how the oldest and most prestigious universities are working together to transform their universities to consolidate democracy and end violent conflict.

His own institution, which achieved the highest ranking in research in Colombia in the Scimago ranking, has set out a comprehensive programme for the next three decades which includes: curriculum change so that all undergraduates are exposed to the need for reconciliation and forgiveness, scholarships for students from the poorest and most violent regions, the integration of former combatants into higher education and interdisciplinary research programmes to address inequality, access to public goods and political participation.