Growing Pains: Ten Common Errors when Building a World-Class University

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Tower of BabelDrawing inspiration from the recent post on the World Bank EduTech Blog by Michael Trucano on "worst practices in ICT in education" I was prompted to compile a list of common errors when attempting to build new world-class universities posted on the Inside Higher Education World Views Blog a few weeks ago. Over the next few days, I’d like to share a more extended version of these common errors, reflecting on my observations from  working with colleagues involved in advising countries keen to establish new tertiary education institutions.  I am especially indebted to Richard Hopper for giving me the opportunity to learn a lot and for contributing “error number 6”.  I would also like to thank Roberta Malee Bassett for her insightful comments and helpful suggestions.  Last but not least, I am grateful to Richard Miller, Founding President of Olin College in Massachusetts and Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, Founding President of Aga Khan University in Karachi, for sharing their wisdom and invaluable experience in the most generous manner.


“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” from a 2008 private conversation with Richard Miller, President of Olin College


In the past decade, the term “world-class university” has become a catch phrase to describe research universities at the pinnacle of the tertiary education hierarchy, as measured by the various international rankings.  Around the world, governments have responded to this global reputational competition with additional funding to promote their national elite universities, as illustrated by the various “Excellence Initiatives” in countries as varied as China, Denmark, Germany, Nigeria, Russia, South Korea, Spain, or Taiwan.  In some cases, the government has also encouraged its top universities to merge so as to achieve economies of scale, and reach a better position to compete globally.  A few countries have even decided to establish new universities from scratch, with the explicit purpose of creating world-class institutions.

Achieving the ambitious result of launching a high quality, 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 government money.  It is a complex and lengthy process that has only recently begun to receive careful attention.  The following examples outline the most common pitfalls encountered in some of the current projects that aim at establishing a new flagship institution. 

  1. Build a magnificent campus; expect magic to happenThe physical infrastructure is obviously the most visible part of a new university.  A lot of care is usually given to the design and construction of impressive, state-of-the-art facilities, and rightly so.  Good academic infrastructure is certainly an important part of the education experience of students, and researchers need adequate laboratories to carry out leading-edge scientific inquiries.  But, without an appropriate governance set-up, a strong leadership team, a well-thought curriculum, and highly qualified academics, the beautiful campus will remain little more than an empty shell that embodies a waste of valuable resources.
    Remember the Tower of Babel!


Image:  The image used at the top of this blog post, The Tower of Babel by Lucas van Valckenborch at the Louvre Museum, comes from Flickr via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


Jamil Salmi

Tertiary Education Coordinator

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