Nine common errors when building a new world-class University


“The opportunity to start from a blank page and create an entire institution from concept to reality is a rare and precious gift. It enables many possibilities that would be unthinkable at established universities… But it requires vision, passion, and courage to attempt to innovate and to deliberately create a new and improved learning culture”. Richard Miller, President of Olin College.

Governments have responded to this global competition with additional funding to promote their elite universities, as illustrated by the various “Excellence Initiatives” in countries as varied as China, Germany, Nigeria, Russia, South Korea, or Taiwan. In some cases, the government has encouraged its top universities to merge to achieve economies of scale. A few countries have established new universities from scratch with the explicit purpose of creating world-class institutions.

Achieving high quality in a new university is easier said than done, however, as building a world-class institution requires more than knee-jerk reactions to the rankings or massive infusion of funds. It is a complex and lengthy process that has only recently received careful attention. The following paragraphs outline the most common pitfalls of initiatives aimed at establishing a new flagship institution.

Build a magnificent campus; hope for magic to happen. Physical infrastructure is obviously the most visible part of a new university. Care is given to the design and construction of impressive facilities, and rightly so. A good infrastructure is certainly an important part of the experience of students, and researchers need adequate laboratories to carry out leading edge scientific inquiries. But, without appropriate governance, a strong leadership team, a well-thought-out curriculum, and qualified academics, a beautiful campus will remain little more than an empty shell.

Design the curriculum after constructing the facilities. It is often assumed that teaching and learning can easily adapt to the physical environment, but innovative pedagogy requires appropriate facilities. For example, interactive approaches, problem-based learning or methods relying on teamwork and peer learning are constrained by the physical limitations of conventional lecture halls and classrooms. It is essential to have a vision, mission and academic plan defined ahead of the construction of the physical infrastructure so that the latter is tailored to the requirements of the former.

Import content from somewhere else. Why reinvent the wheel? Teams in charge of establishing new universities logically look at top institutions in industrial countries to “buy” elements of their curriculum instead of going through the lengthy process of designing their own. While this may seem expedient and practical, it is not the most effective way of building the academic culture of a new university to reach high standards. The Harvards and MITs of this world are unique institutions and it is unrealistic to think that it is possible to reproduce their academic models. And it is unrealistic to envision bringing curricular fragments from prestigious institutions across different countries and cultures and assume that everything would fall into place to create an authentic learning and research culture in the new university.

Design with an OECD ecosystem in mind, implement elsewhere. Replicating specific advantages that make flagship universities in North America and Europe successful—concentration of talent, abundant resources and favorable governance—is a necessary but not sufficient in themselves for a world-class institution. It is difficult if not impossible to maintain thriving universities when the national tertiary education ecosystem is not fully supportive. The main elements of the ecosystem include national leadership (a vision for the future of tertiary education, capacity to implement reforms), the regulatory framework (governance structure and management processes at the national and institutional levels), quality assurance frameworks, mechanisms for integrating various types of tertiary institutions, appropriate financial resources and incentives, and a technical infrastructure. The absence of even one of these elements or the lack of alignment among these various dimensions is likely to compromise the ability of new universities to progress and endure.

Delay putting in place the Board and appointing the leadership team. The creation of a new university is often a political decision that a ministry or a technical project team is then charged with implementing. This often leads to a centrally managed design and implementation process. A project of such magnitude needs to be owned and carried out by a dynamic leadership team, working under the authority of an independent Board with the capacity to provide guidance and empowerment. An appropriate governance framework from the outset is critical for success.

Plan for up-front capital costs, but not to long-term financial sustainability. The promoters of a new university usually announce a huge endowment for the establishment of the new institution, but an initial capital investment is not sufficient. It is essential to provide adequately for the first few years of operation and to establish a business model that insures that the new institution can sustain itself.

Be too ambitious in your quantitative targets. Leaders of new institutions sometimes think that they can rapidly enroll large numbers of students, often in the tens of thousands. This is rarely achieved without sacrificing quality. In the 1970s, E.F. Schumacher wrote in his book “Small is Beautiful” that successful development projects were preferably of a small size. Small is still beautiful today, especially when creating a new university. It is almost always better to begin with a small number of programs and students if quality is a priority. Once a strong academic culture is in place, it is easier to scale up.

Think that you can do it all in eighteen months. Overly ambitious planning might assume that a new institution can be launched in a matter of months or that high quality teaching and research can be accomplished within a few years. Rushing through the initial development can lead to decisions that have an adverse effect on quality and cost. Institution-building is unavoidably a long-term process that requires stable leadership, continuous improvement, and patience. This is especially true for developing the robust scientific traditions needed to produce leading edge research and technological applications.

Rely on foreign academics without building up local capacity. Hiring foreign academics is common practice to accelerate the launch of a new university. Indeed, it makes good sense to bring experienced teachers and researchers to help; it can also be a very effective capacity-building strategy when an important part of the mission of the foreign academics is to train younger, less experienced academics in the host country. On the other hand, it can be a counter-productive strategy in the absence of systematic efforts to attract and retain qualified national academics.

In conclusion, launching a new tertiary education institution that aspires to the highest possible standards is a noble but extremely difficult enterprise. The road to academic excellence is full of avoidable pitfalls, as illustrated by the preceding discussion. More importantly, the decision to build a world-class university must always be examined within the proper context to ensure alignment with the national tertiary education strategy and avoid distortions in resource allocation within the sector. With thoughtful and realistic planning, however, reaching for excellence in tertiary education can always be seen as a worthy and important objective.