Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, has written an article in the Centre's latest newsletter on The Costs and Benefits of World-Class Universities. He writes about the need to develop some criteria to enable an appropriate international assessment of just what a world class university is. His 'starting point' list includes:

  • excellence in research,
  • academic freedom,
  • a sense of intellectual excitement,
  • governance - the academic community has control over the central elements of academic life,
  • adequate facilities, and
  • adequate funding.

Altbach makes the point that not every university can be 'world class' and that trying to achieve that status might be detrimental to the university and the education system in that country. Nor can every world class university be the best at everything. The differentiation imperative at work in universities now almost requires that strength be distributed throughout the education system - but there are some core criteria that define a 'good' university, and Altbach's are indeed a good starting point for discussion.

His closing words are notable (my bolding):

"The world-class debate has one important benefit--it is focusing attention on academic standards and improvement, and on the roles of universities in society, and of how academic institutions can fit in a higher education system within a country and in the global academic universe. Striving for excellence is not a bad thing, and competition may spark improvement. Yet, a sense of realism must be a part of the equation, and sensitivity to the public good as well. The fuzziness of the concept of a world-class university combined with the impossibility, so far at least, of measuring academic quality and accomplishment make the struggle difficult. Indeed, it might well be the case that the innovative energies and resources of higher education should be focused on more realistic and perhaps more useful goals."

It is only in the last couple of years that university ranking systems - whether international or local - have been challenged as a universal indicator of quality - they are inherently flawed, and that's never been denied. But the alacrity with which universities use their ranking outcomes to market themselves suggests that meaningful definitions of quality continue to elude us. And, the concept of chasing rankings just seems to be more busy work which takes up a lot of time and energy, but actually achieves very little of real meaning and value to the institution.

Like most things, rankings are useful in some circumstances, but they are of little value as a focus of university strategy development and thinking about future positioning.