To me, these are the most exciting, stimulating and challenging times
for universities, although I know some say gloomily that universities are
under pressure as never before. This certainly is a common view I have
heard during the past year in Australia and on visits to Canada, Germany
and the United Kingdom.
In the United States, on the other hand, research-intensive
universities are riding the crest of rising support. And in The People’s
Republic of China the Government not only recognises the importance of
China’s university system overall, but is committed to promoting quite
strategically a group of Chinese universities into the world-class league.
My conviction, the passion which inspires my colleagues and me at the
University of New South Wales, is that despite current economic
difficulties we have an historic opportunity in the Asian region:
- To develop universities which are unsurpassed in any part of the
- To use the ever-expanding frontiers of knowledge and the astonishing
advances in technology to create the highest quality of research and
- To serve our students and our national, regional and global
communities at the leading edge.
So What Does World-Class Mean?
The modern university often is a large, complex organisation with
multiple stakeholders, increasingly involved in a world of global
competition yet, at home, the subject of much probing and public scrutiny.
In comparison with the complexity of universities, other organisations
in society – a merchant bank, a construction company, or even a railroad
– often seem single-cell, amoeba-like structures.
For universities, world-class standing is built on reputation and
perception – often seen as subjective and uncertain – and it requires
outstanding performance in many events.
At the Top of My list is Quality of Faculty
A world-class university will be widely recognised as an eminent
institution, as a place where top staff will wish to congregate. Given the
chance, staff from other universities will migrate to the world-class
university, and top faculty attract top students. The process is
auto-catalytic. This means such a university will almost certainly be a
research-intensive university. It also must teach well. But first and
foremost it is a place where people will want to spend time for the
experience, and to associate with the fame and respect that goes with
this. Absolutely fundamental to building such a climate is the quality of
the staff, especially the academic faculty members.
Research Reputation is Critical
Although there is a general awareness in the wider community that
university research delivers worthwhile outcomes, there is a particular
need in medium-scale economies for the benefits flowing from research to
Whilst I am not in favour of closely targeting research to narrow
national objectives, I note that many of the success stories at the UNSW
are in areas of vital importance to Australia. For example, UNSW’s
world-class research on solar photovoltaic cells and artificial membranes
for water treatment address areas of immediate national importance.
Students involved in research that leads to practical outcomes gain
much from the experience.
It is largely through their research performance, and how this is
carried through to excite and inform the learning process for all members
of the university which will most build reputational capital, and most put
it at risk. But this is not a bad thing, for systems are needed which keep
the pressure on those who wish to be seen as the best. A university
perceived to be world class one generation may not be there in the eyes of
the next generation. Mobility in reputations, as much as with staff and
students, helps keep the flame alive!
This is an edited extract from a public lecture delivered at the National University of Singapore on the 25th June, 1998.
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