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Countdown of Common Errors when Building a World-Class University

Jamil Salmi's picture

No Steps leading to front doorThis week, I’m 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.  Yesterday I focused on the magnificent campus and the expectation that magic will come from it; today, I delve into some other common errors when building a world class university.  Here are common errors number 2, 3 and-4. 

2. Design the curriculum after constructing the facilities.  It is often assumed that teaching and learning can easily adapt to the physical environment of the institution.  This may be true for traditional lecture-based teaching, but innovative pedagogical practices often require equally innovative facilities.For example, interactive approaches, problem-based learning or pedagogical methods relying heavily on teamwork and peer learning are constrained by the physical limitations of conventional lecture halls or even classrooms. 

Libraries and laboratories have evolved dramatically in recent years due to changes in technology.  The promoters of a new university should refrain from launching into the architectural design stage of their institution until they have established not only a clear definition of the vision and mission of the new institution but have also determined some of the specific content of teaching and research.  It is particularly essential (and most prudent) to prepare the academic plan of the new institution ahead of the construction of the physical infrastructure and to tailor the latter to the requirements of the former rather than the other way around.  At the very least, the academic staff should be given the opportunity to influence the design of the pedagogical and research spaces of the new institution.

3. Import content from somewhere else.  Why reinvent the wheel?  The teams in charge of establishing new universities tend to look almost exclusively at the top-ranked institutions in industrial countries to buy or copy elements of their curriculum instead of going through the more labor-intensive process of custom designing their own programs.  While this may seem expedient and practical, it is not the most effective way of building the academic culture of a new university that aims to reach high standards.  The Harvards and Oxfords of this world are unique institutions that have evolved over centuries, and it is unrealistic to think that reproducing their distinctive academic model is possible or even desirable.  And it is impractical to envision shopping around and bringing curricular fragments from a variety of top notch institutions across different countries / cultures, assuming that everything could easily gel together and fall in place to create an authentic learning and research culture in the new university.  Curriculum development is demanding work, but it is the main mechanism that can allow a unique and innovative organizational culture to emerge.

4. Design with an OECD ecosystem in mind, implement elsewhere.  Replicating the three key features that make flagship universities in industrial countries successful—concentration of talent, abundant resources and favorable governance—is a fundamental requirement, but it does not encompass the full complement of operational conditions that underpin the authorizing environment of a successful world-class institution.  It is difficult if not impossible to create and maintain thriving universities when the tertiary education ecosystem within which they operate is not fully supportive.  Some potentially important dimensions of a favorable ecosystem include leadership at the national level (existence of a vision about the future of tertiary education, capacity to implement reforms), the regulatory framework (legal provisions, governance structure and management processes at the national and institutional levels), the quality assurance framework, the mechanisms and pathways integrating the various types of tertiary education institutions, the financial resources and incentives, along with the digital and telecommunications infrastructure.  To operate adequately, all of these require an overarching set of conditions which have to do with political and economic stability, the rule of law, the existence of basic freedoms, and a favorable location from the viewpoint of the spatial environment in which the new tertiary education institution is meant to operate (local economic, social and cultural life).  The absence of even only 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.  

 Among other things, these errors point to the importance of developing an original academic and institutional culture that fits well into the local environment.  

 Image:  The image used at the top of this blog post, the door to a building which is innaccesible as it doesn't have steps leading to it, by william veerbeek's was accessed from Flick and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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