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Outlook: Chasing World-Class Status
Outlook: Chasing World-Class Status

Are the global rankings a worthy pursuit or an overhyped ambition?

By Jamil Salmi

For a handful of elite universities, global rankings repeatedly confirm that they sit on top of the world.

With their rich endowments and storied histories, a select group of institutions from the United States and the United Kingdom routinely capture the top ten placements on the two most prestigious league tables for world-class universities, namely those produced by the Times Higher Education and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which select the top 200 and 500 universities, respectively.

Not surprisingly, every move of the leading institutions is scrutinized by dozens of other countries also in pursuit of "world-class university" status. Eager to compete for a slice of the global economy, these countries are impatient to crack the monopoly held by a small number of mostly Western countries at the pinnacle of accomplishment in elite tertiary education.

But how? Philip Altbach, director of Boston College's Center for International Higher Education, summed up the problem: "Everyone wants one, no one knows what it is, and no one knows how to get one."

The new World Bank report The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities steps into this breach. Presenting research on the attributes of world-class universities, the report offers advice for countries eager to win a coveted spot on the world's honor rolls.

The report also describes the perils of falling from grace in the world rankings. In September 2005, the THE rankings sparked a major controversy in Malaysia when the country's top two universities slipped by almost 100 places from the previous year. Although the big drop was mostly the result of a change in the ranking methodology, there were widespread calls for the establishment of a royal inquiry to investigate the matter. A few weeks later, the vice-chancellor of the University of Malaya stepped down.

So how does a university become "world class"? Our research shows that there is no universal recipe or magic formula. But one cardinal rule is that money alone will not buy you a coveted spot on the annual lists. And you can't be in a hurry either.

As a result, countries that aspire to build world-class universities may be chasing a myth that could take years to materialize, cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate, and still fall short of the social and economic rewards commonly associated with these prestigious institutions. The global economy is still treading water, with little prospect of short-term growth on the horizon, and unemployment is rising everywhere. This makes it all the more important that low- and middle-income countries appreciate that the hype surrounding world-class institutions more often than not far exceeds their domestic education and research needs.

Still, with all the caveats, nations will continue to pursue world-class status. What exactly should they be working toward? The research shows that three factors distinguish top international universities from their competitors: talented teachers and students; significant budgets; and strategic leadership.


In most cases, world-class universities recruit students and faculty without concern for national borders and not just exclusively from the country where the university operates. This enables them to focus on attracting the most talented people, no matter where they come from, and to open themselves up to new ideas and approaches.

Massachusetts' Harvard University, for instance, has a student population that is 19 percent international; California's Stanford University is 21 percent international; and New York's Columbia University is 23 percent. At the U.K.'s University of Cambridge, 18 percent of the students are from outside European Union countries. The top-ranked U.S. universities also show sizable proportions of foreign academic staff. California Institute of Technology has 37 percent, for example.

Unquestionably, the world's best universities enroll and hire large numbers of foreign students and faculty in their search for the most talented.

Significant budgets

The report notes that world-class universities have four main sources of financing: government budget funding for operational spending and research, contract research funding from public organizations and private firms, earnings from endowments and gifts, and tuition fees.

In Western Europe, public funding is by far the top source of finance for teaching and research. In Asia, the National University of Singapore has been the most successful institution in terms of private fundraising, with a current endowment portfolio of US$774 million. The United States and, to a lesser extent, Japan have thriving private research universities.

The sound financial base of the top U.S. universities is the result of two factors: 1) large endowments, which provide budget security, comfort, and the ability to focus on medium- and long-term institutional priorities; and 2) the success of their faculty in competing for government research funding. On average, per student, the richest U.S. private universities receive more than US$40,000 in endowment income every year, compared with a mere US$1,000 for Canadian universities. Unlike many universities in Europe, these U.S. institutions are not at the short-term mercy of government funding.

The availability of abundant resources creates a virtuous circle that allows such institutions to attract even more top professors and researchers.

Strategic leadership

Research found that world-class universities thrive in an environment that fosters competitiveness, unrestrained scientific inquiry, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity. Moreover, institutions that have complete autonomy are also more agile because they are not bound by clunky bureaucracies and externally imposed standards. As a result, they can manage their resources efficiently and quickly respond to the demands of a rapidly changing global market.

It is important to note, however, that this level of autonomy is not enough to establish world-class status without other vital strategic leadership and governance features.

Costs and benefits

The truth is that not every nation must have comprehensive world-class universities, at least not while more fundamental tertiary education needs are not being met. Therefore, countries rushing to build elite research universities must weigh their decision within the context of their wider economic development plans for the future and whether they can afford the huge price of building and running such institutions without short-changing the rest of the country's tertiary education system.

Countries may potentially be better off if they focus initially on developing the best national universities possible, modeled perhaps on some of the original U.S. land-grant universities or the polytechnic universities of Germany and Canada. The U.S. community college, recently promoted with vigor by Jill Biden, the wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, at the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, also offers an excellent model for low-cost, high-efficiency tertiary education teaching. These institutions emphasize the diverse learning and training needs of the domestic student population and could promote more effective and sustainable development than broader world-class aspirations.

The bottom line is not that countries should abandon their dreams to set up their own world-class universities. It is instead that they ought to aspire to set up high-quality new institutions, understanding that there are trade-offs involved and that they need not be in a hurry. Most of the world's elite institutions began as small teaching colleges and with time (decades, if not centuries), financial stability, and thoughtful leadership grew into the envied institutions they are now.

Finally, it is also important to note that becoming a member of the exclusive group of world-class universities is not achieved by self-declaration; rather, elite status is conferred by the outside world on the basis of international recognition. The contest for world-class university status will continue to be one where many are called but few are chosen.


For a PDF of the report, go to and search for The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities.
Chasing World-Class Status © 2009 by The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, 1818 H Street, NW, Washington, DC 20433, USA. All permission requests should be addressed to the World Bank, Office of the Publisher, 1818 H Street, NW, Washington, DC 20433, e-mail A print copy of The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities, by Jamil Salmi, can be purchased at

About the Author Jamil Salmi

Jamil Salmi is the World Bank Group's tertiary education coordinator and the author of The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities.




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