The Road to Academic Excellence: Lessons of Experience


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Cover of The Road to Academic Excellence

When I published my first book on World Class Universities two years ago, I certainly did not anticipate the world-wide exposure it received. Now, I sometimes worry about having contributed to raising expectations about the importance of world-class universities. 


When I visited Nigeria last year, I was told that the country wanted to have 20 World Class Universities by 2020. Recently, Sri Lanka announced that it would increase its higher education budget in the hope of having at least one world-class university. Today we launched The Road to Academic Excellence, a new book I edited with Professor Phil Altbach, and already, the burden of guilt regarding the possible consequences of the new book haunt me.

This new book brings together nine case-studies, telling the story of 11 institutions undergoing a complex transformational process as they strive to become world-class research universities, either by following the “upgrading” or the “starting anew” path to academic excellence.


The sample of institutions reviewed is too small to be conclusive, but the case studies suggest that establishing a new institution is a relatively faster and more effective approach to becoming a world-class research university. Still, new research universities face special challenges. They need to sufficiently innovative and represent a convincing alternative to existing institutions to attract top academics and good students. Indeed, the book identifies global talent search strategies among the most powerful accelerating factors for establishing world-class research universities.


Interestingly, new niche programs seem to have an easier time attracting top talent. The book highlights several cases of such niche programs including the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology which stands out as being the most successful in terms of attracting top talent, in part thanks to the founders’ deliberate reliance on the Diaspora to jump-start the new institution. 


Another significant finding from this book is the fact that outstanding research universities do not operate in a vacuum. It is necessary to takes into consideration key forces at play at the level of the tertiary education ecosystem, within which institutions evolve. The case studies show several ways in which these tertiary education ecosystems affect the performance of individual institutions, either positively or negatively, depending on the circumstances. 


My final thoughts are that even top research universities find it hard to achieve a harmonious balance between equipping their students with technical skills and rigorous methodologies while imparting the ethical values needed to pursue scientific inquiries in a socially responsible manner. Case studies in the book illustrate the concern to maintain a curriculum that blends a strong scientific training with a deep humanistic conviction. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of a new university that is being established in the Indian state of Orissa, says “only an education that can nourish inbuilt virtues can impart true intelligence.”


As this book is launched, it is important to remember that research universities are but one component of a comprehensive tertiary education system. They certainly deserve attention and resources, but governments should be careful to keep investing also in the other institutions—community colleges, polytechnics, teaching universities, open universities, all of which are important parts of a strong tertiary education system.


Watch the lively and accomplished panel consisting of Elizabeth King, Jamil Salmi, Philip G. Altbach, Shamsh Kassim Lakha, Patti Peterson and Phil Hay discuss the book and it’s key findings.




Jamil Salmi

Tertiary Education Coordinator

Join the Conversation

Andres Marroquin
October 06, 2011

Thanks for the post, I wrote something about your post: it is here. 
The book "The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities," suggests the following elements for the making of a world-class research University -- [by the way, see the pretty interesting collection of case studies in the link above]: Leadership matters, [no surprises here]. It is easer to start a research university from scratch than it is to transform an existing university [the main idea in the book]. Inner virtues, and a combination of humanities and the sciences are key: “[O]nly an education that can nourish inbuilt virtues can impart true intelligence” (Sri Sri University 2010). What about teaching universities? [my own ideas here, I have in mind developing countries ]: Technology in the form of Youtube, Skype, etc., is making virtual education more effective than ever before [have you seen the Khan Academy?]. This reduces the fixed costs of a University that focuses on virtual education, and reduces significantly the marginal cost per student. Cost might be even lower if universities automatize certain key processes, like grading, for example. With this cost structure one might think that virtual education should take off and grow much faster than traditional education. But there is one thing virtual education might have a more difficult time to automatize: "localized research" [or research in general for that matter]. Doing research and focusing on localized research, which can not be automatized easily [because research papers have to be read by an informed professor, who knows the theories, the literature, etc.], might be indeed a survival strategy for universities in the present and the future. This can also bring a fair amount of positive externalities. The future of higher education looks bright indeed !!! [HT Jamil Salmi]

October 06, 2011

Dr Salmi has done us all a greta service by laying out the issues so clearly and usisng his obvious experience and insights to suggest good options for countries and communities fo elarning. Well done World Bank