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Research to excellence

By Gavin Moodie - posted Thursday, 2 March 2006

What Peter Drucker described as the “knowledge economy” in 1969 is now a competitive global market, with higher education at its centre. While Australian universities have competed for full-fee-paying international students since 1985 and enrolments have grown spectacularly since 1996, the real global competition is in research - for the best researchers, students, facilities, journals and the most money. It is research, rather than teaching quality or student numbers, that is the mark of prestige, the surrogate for quality and the key to national economic prosperity.

Vast amounts of money are now being spent on research and higher education in pursuit of the prestige and economic growth that is expected to follow. Countries in Asia, northern Europe and North America are at the forefront of this investment surge. In 1993, the Chinese Government promulgated the “Outline for reform and development of education in China” which led to the establishment of Project 211 - often literally interpreted as the establishment of 100 “world-famous” universities by the 21st century. The Chinese ministry of education spent nearly 18.3 billion yuan renminbi on Project 211 in the seven years from 1996 to 2002, some $420 million each year. The focus is on research that will drive the Chinese economy in the future, that will keep the best Chinese students at home and attract the best from around the globe, and on the development of prestigious institutions to rival the greatest United States and British universities.

On May 4, 1998, the then president of the People’s Republic of China, Jiang Zemin, delivered a speech to mark the centenary of Peking University in which he argued for China to establish some first-rank, world-class universities. The policy, which became known as Project 985 because it was presaged by the former president in May 1998, has resulted in China investing $4.5 billion in 34 universities to make them “world-class”.


But what is a “world-famous” or “world-class” university? Until recently no one knew. There was probably a general consensus that Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, Berkeley and MIT were world leaders, and that Harvard outstripped them all. Jiang Zemin’s alma mater, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, decided to find out. Its Institute of Higher Education, lead by Professor Nian Cai Liu, first published an academic ranking of the top 500 world universities in June 2003. Shanghai Jiao Tong University allocates 30 per cent of its ranking according to the number of each institution’s graduates and staff who have won Nobel prizes for science or Field medals for mathematics and the rest to research publications and citations that are heavily weighted to scientific research. Nonetheless, Shanghai Jiao Tong’s ranking has reasonable face validity as a ranking of universities’ research performance and is the most authoritative and, in my view, the only credible international ranking of universities. Its 2005 rank places Harvard on top, as expected, with a score set at 100. Cambridge is ranked second, but with a score of only 73.6. The rest of the top 20 is dominated by US universities, with Oxford making tenth place with a score of 59.7 and Tokyo University ranked 20 with a score of 46.7.

Liu decided that a world-famous university was one ranked in the top 200, while a world-class university was one ranked in the top 100. On this measure, Australia does quite well, with the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne considered world-class and the universities of Sydney, Queensland, NSW and Western Australia considered world-famous.

Overt and intense global competition among universities is relatively recent. It has quickly become a proxy for the future economic success of nations. It is only loosely related to the education of most of the population. While national rankings of universities have been published at least since the magazine US News & World Report began its annual rankings of US colleges and universities in 1983, and in Australia in 1995, when the Good Universities Guide was first published, world rankings of universities didn’t emerge until the turn of the millennium. The magazine Asiaweek published its report on “Asia’s best universities” from 1997 to 2000, as the Asian tiger economies flexed their muscles. The first important international ranking of universities was not published until 2002 when the Swiss Federal Government’s Zentrum für Wissenschafts- und Technologiestudien (Centre for Science and Technology Studies) published its “champions league” of research institutions which ranked universities and other research institutions by the number and impact of research journals.

For most of the past half century, higher education has been dominated by two issues: more students and how to pay for them, with research considered by governments to be an expensive distraction from more pressing issues. The focus has been on getting more people into higher education to respond to social demand and develop a highly skilled workforce. The distinguished Berkeley higher-education analyst Martin Trow first described in 1974 the transition from elite to mass higher education: from providing higher education to a small elite - typically around 5 per cent of school leavers - to making it available to more than 15 per cent of school leavers.

The US achieved this transition first, before World War II. Many European countries provided higher education to more than 15 per cent of high-school graduates by the 1980s, Singapore by 1990 and Australia by the late 1990s. Other more advanced developing nations are now making the transition to mass higher education, while Australia, Canada, New Zealand, northern Europe, Singapore, the United Kingdom, the US and other developed countries have achieved universal higher education, which Trow defined as participation by more than 35 per cent of the relevant age group.

This expansion of higher education significantly increased costs. Some countries, typically those in northern Europe, have tried to handled this by increasing public funding of higher education to keep up with its expansion. Others, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and now England, have followed the US, transferring much of the extra cost to students and their parents with a combination of loans and grants.


One of the risks of this strategy is that it may restrict access overall, especially to members of disadvantaged groups, who may have the intellect but not the means to access higher education. Despite recurrent disquiet, this does not seem to be the case. Indeed, universal higher education is continuing to grow in most of the high-fee high-loans countries as has been found in a recent study by the Education Policy Institute, based in the US, Canada and Australia.

The institute ranks, by accessibility and affordability, higher education in 16 countries: Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the UK, the US and ten western European countries. The Netherlands and Finland have both the most affordable and the most accessible higher education systems of the countries examined.

However, the rest of the Institute’s accessibility table is almost the inverse of its affordability table. There is a clear trade off between the availability of places and who bears the cost of expanding higher education: it is more accessible in those countries that have transferred most of the costs to students than in those countries where increased public funding has kept higher education relatively affordable, but limited the number of places available.

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First published in the Griffith REVIEW 11: "Getting Smart the battle for ideas in education" (ABC Books).

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About the Author

Gavin Moodie is the principal policy analyst in the Office of the Vice-chancellor, Griffith University.

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