World Bank says top research universities not for all

The Hong Kong University of Science & Technology's success is partly a product of its brain gain policies, says the report Copyright: Hong Kong University of Science & Technology

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[SANTIAGO] Developing countries should only establish world-class research universities once they have a good tertiary education system in place, says a World Bank report.

The report, ‘Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities’ published earlier this month (6 October), examined the experience of 11 leading public and private research universities in nine countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

The top performers shared three key factors, it found. These were: high concentration of talented academics and students, abundant resources and strategic vision and leadership.

"Money is definitely important as modern teaching and research facilities are expensive," Jamil Salmi, the World Bank’s higher education coordinator and a co-author of the report, told SciDev.Net. "But even more significant is the regulatory framework and governance arrangements."

The political and economic circumstances are also important, the report says.

For example, the University of Ibadan, in Nigeria, lost its most talented researchers during successive military dictatorships, whereas India’s economic growth has lured back many talented expatriate researchers.

According to the report, world-class universities thrive in environments that foster competitiveness, unrestrained scientific enquiry and academic freedom, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity.

They also attract the best national and international students and staff, encouraging brain gain, the report says.

"Many countries, including some in Africa, have a relatively large number of qualified professionals working in industrialised nations. Tapping this resource is a powerful way of building national capacities. The challenge is to provide a professional and living environment that is safe and nurturing," Salmi said.

He attributed the rapid rise of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in large part "to its systematic policy of staffing the initial contingent of academics with outstanding Chinese from the diaspora".

Salmi added that creating new research institutions may be easier than revamping existing ones.

"The transformation of existing universities is often more challenging because of vested interests and established practices that are not fully conducive to reaching the highest economic levels," he said.

José Joaquín Brunner, former Chilean minister for education and an international advisor on higher education, told SciDev.Net: "It is neither possible nor convenient for all countries to aspire to have world-class universities".

"Countries must aim for tertiary education systems that respond to their national needs and focus on equity, social mobility, human capital formation, production of relevant knowledge and participation in international networks," hesaid.

Link to full report  [2.52MB]

Link to video of the report’s launch [WMV]