World-class institutions or enabling world-class individuals?

University World News has published a fascinating debate, asking if too much emphasis is being put on world-class universities to the detriment of issues like widening participation.

Should all universities strive to top league tables and aim to be the best of the best?

photo by Stefan
photo by Stefan

Ellen Hazelkorn makes the following statement:

“Governments and universities must stop obsessing about global rankings and the top 1% of the world’s 15,000 institutions. Instead of simply rewarding the achievements of elites and flagship institutions, policy needs to focus on the quality of the system-as-a-whole.” [Source]

Another piece, by Parra, Bozo & Inciarte, considers universities in developing countries. But in some ways, it may be worth considering the following in terms of UK institutions too:

“…there cannot be a single model for universities. Rather, different models of universities or other higher education institutions that respond to diverse needs and are substantially different in quality, status and content need to coexist.

“Some universities will reflect the top research centre model; others, the training or professionalising model; and there will be universities that focus their performance on social needs such as community engagement, social service, the micro-economy and social mobility.”

Difficulties arise for widening participation when different levels of higher learning develop, so nothing is simple. Making certain institutions more appealing to disadvantaged young people, for instance, somewhat misses the point. Yet it’s also crucial to consider a diverse range of individual needs and pathways.

It’s easy to say that Oxbridge isn’t necessarily for everyone. But how easy is it to say that the lowest ranked university in the country might be best suited to a top-grade student?

I bet the second statement doesn’t fit so comfortably. My question is, should that be the case?

Success has many faces and comes from many places. As Doug Belshaw argues, “You can strive to be élite (as an individual, organisation or country) without being élitist”. Therefore, in the right circumstances, world-class achievement can arise from a humble position.

Next time you hear someone make a basic comparison or simply state that one thing is better than another, remember that the remarks can only be subjective. Even considerable attempts to back up what’s being said won’t usually result in unarguable fact.

Higher education encompasses so much that institutions can struggle to shine in their many roles and competitive situations. That is why different models of engagement should be welcomed, “otherwise focus is increasingly replaced by dilution“.

Could a world-class graduate emerge from a low-ranking university? I say it’s just as likely as finding a mediocre graduate from a world-class institution.

What say you?

Further reading from the University World News debate: