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Final Countdown: Top 10 Common Errors when Building a World-Class University

Jamil Salmi's picture

This is my last post sharing the top 10 common errors when building new world class universities based on my work over the past 17 years at the World Bank and reflecting on my observations from  working with colleagues involved in advising countries keen to establish new tertiary education institutions.  A full version of the lessons can be accessed at Ten Common Errors When Building a New World-Class University

8. Be too ambitious in enrollment targets.  The 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 famous book “Small is Beautiful” that successful development projects were preferably of a small size. 

Small is still beautiful today, especially when it applies to setting up a new college or university.  It is usually a better idea to begin with a small number of programs and student body if quality is a priority.  It allows the new institution to deploy resources more prudently, to take time to develop its new academic culture, and to give precedence to quality factors over everything else.  Once a strong academic culture is in place, it is easier to scale up from there.

9. Think that everything can be accomplished in eighteen months.  A variant of over-ambitious planning is assuming that a new institution can be launched in a matter of months and that high quality teaching and research can be accomplished within a few years of establishing a new university.  In reality, rushing through the initial phase of design and implementation can often only lead to hasty decisions that can have an adverse effect on the quality and cost of the project.  Furthermore, institution-building is a long-term process that requires stable leadership, continuous improvement, and patience.  This is especially true when it comes to developing the robust scientific traditions needed to produce leading edge research and technological applications.

10. Rely exclusively on foreign academics without building up local capacity.  Hiring foreign academics is common practice to accelerate the launch of a new university in a country with limited capacity.  Indeed, it makes good sense to bring experienced instructors and researchers to help put new programs in place; 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 from the host country.  On the other hand, it can be a risky and counter-productive approach in the absence of systematic efforts to attract and retain qualified national academics. As with most plans that include reliance on outside actors and forces, the strategy of bringing on foreign academic staff should be one that complements the more fundamental aim of local capacity building.

In conclusion, launching a new tertiary education institution that aspires to attain 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 of most commonly observed errors.  More importantly, the decision to build a world-class university must always be examined within the proper context to ensure full alignment with the national tertiary education strategy and avoid distortions in resource allocation patterns within the sector.  With thoughtful and realistic planning, however, reaching for excellence in tertiary education, at all levels, can only be seen as a good and important thing.This week, I presented the ten most common errors that I have observed in recent years, but I am sure that there might be a few more worth mentioning. 

I invite you, the readers, to post comments with examples that illustrate these or other types of mistakes that can befall attempts to establish a new world-class university.

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Jamil is quoted in a recent article in Le Monde "Des pistes pour contrer la fuite des cerveaux africain" on how best to develop stronger collaboration between European and African researchers without speeding up the 'brain-drain' effect. Apparently, the European Association of Universities (EUA, 850 universities in 46 countries in Europe), presented a white paper in Brussels this morning which lays out a plan for "a university cooperation for development" to counter the 'pillaging' of African researchers and intellectual content.

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