Comparative lessons on achieving world-class status

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    AlvanIkoku
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    The recent outcry against the lowering of admission standards and the policy flip-flop over the post-Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination test should be regarded as indications of lack of effective quality control of educational standards in Nigerian universities. Even more importantly, it shows that rather than make efforts to avert further decline, policymakers and relevant university authorities are making matters worse by lowering standards and moving back and forth on appropriate policies.

    Besides the tell-tale signs of visible decline on university campuses, especially the deteriorating library, laboratory, and classroom facilities throughout the country (with the exception of a few private universities), incessant complaints by employers of labour about the low quality of university graduates offer further evidence of decline.

    Yet, standards cannot improve overnight or by legislation. Nor could they improve uniformly across all Nigerian universities. Indeed, in no country with numerous universities like Nigeria is the quality of university education uniform. For example, although American universities dominate the top 1,000 in the world, thousands more do not make the mark at all. Nevertheless, every American university operates within the range of certain acceptable standards.

    True, the National Universities Commission has been trying to enforce curricular standards, wide variations still exist in the quality of Nigerian university graduates, with most of them in the substandard category, reflecting the low standard of the universities themselves. It is no wonder then that only one Nigerian university, namely, the University of Ibadan, has made it to the top 1,000 in the world in the last few years.

    The criteria employed in world university rankings show that only improvements in the quality of teaching, research, citations of faculty publications, industrial outreach, and internationalisation can guarantee the attainment of world-class status.

    In a series of essays, beginning with the present one, I focus on the major factors needed to improve on these criteria. They include (a) strong institutions and infrastructure; (b) appropriate policies; (c) targeted funding; (d) strong leadership and effective governance; and (e) effective quality control. Appropriate case studies from different countries will be used to illustrate how these factors have been combined to achieve quality control and higher world rankings. I begin with Russian and Chinese examples.

    Just four years ago, the Russian government established a cash-backed policy to enhance the quality of education in select universities. The policy led to the Academic Excellence 5-100 Project, aimed at getting five Russian universities in the top 100. A board was established for the project, which selected 21 participating universities from a total pool of 54 applicants.

    The objectives of the project include (a) producing world-class intellectual products and academic programmes; (b) increasing research potential; (c) hiring at least 10 per cent international professors, and (d) ensuring at least 15 per cent admission of international students. In addition, the universities are enjoined to improve their faculty’s science citation index.

    About $10 billion was released to each participating university each year, depending on an assessment of the implementation of the policy. In reviewing the programme recently, the Russian government admitted that even the initial generous funding for the project was not enough. Accordingly, it is increasing the funding from $599 billion to $749 billion for the 2018-2020 period, being encouraged in part by the upward ranking of some of the universities in the latest rankings.

    The Russian government does not have to worry about strong institutions and infrastructure as both are adequate. It therefore focused on the other factors. In order to ensure compliance with the Academic Excellence policy, funding is provided to participating universities on the basis of their compliance with the implementation criteria.

    Finally, to ensure quality control, an independent body was established to oversee the Academic Excellence project. The Council on Competitiveness Enhancement of Leading Russian Universities among Global Research and Education Centres established the criteria for selecting the universities; assesses them on compliance; and suggests how much money should be allocated to each university. It also suggests to the Ministry of Education what else should be done to achieve the objectives of the project.

    Interestingly, two Russian universities had earlier been used more or less as guinea pigs, and were already in the top 100 in the world by the time the Academic Excellence project was established. They are Moscow State University, ranked 25th in the world in 2015 by Times Higher Education, and St. Petersburg State University, which was in the 71-80 group. These two universities were specially funded by the Russian government, and they still enjoy the special status. They are not included among the 21 participating universities in the Academic Excellence project.

    China established a similar programme in 2015, known as the “Double First Class” project, which operates on a five-year cycle. There are 42 universities in the present cycle. The goal is to expand significantly the number of highly-ranked Chinese universities by 2050. Like Russia, only two Chinese universities are in the top 100, namely, Peking University, at 27th, and Tsinghua University at 30th.

    Again, like Russia, China has been providing special funding for certain universities and certain programmes within them as part of the overall goal of attaining world-class status. For example, for a long time, extra funding was provided for Tsinghua University’s engineering programme. By 2015, it had beaten MIT to second place in the engineering rankings.

    It is pertinent to recall here that Prof. Ladipo Adamolekun suggested a similar policy in his convocation lecture at the Federal University, Oye Ekiti, earlier this year. He suggested that six public universities be selected, one from each geopolitical zone, to be nurtured as elite universities with the following specific goal: “to have one in the top 100, two others in the top 200 and the other three in the top 500 by 2030 (“Adamolekun on salvaging Nigerian universities”, The PUNCH, May 9, 2017).

    However, unlike the Russian and Chinese governments, which did not have to worry about infrastructure and funding, the Nigerian government is up against serious challenges in these areas. Accordingly, until the funding situation improves, the Federal Government may not be able to specially fund six elite universities.

    However, following the Russian example, the Federal Government could allocate special funding to the University of Ibadan, which is already in the 800-900 group, perhaps over the next five years, to see how higher in the rankings’ additional funding could facilitate. Other quality control measures are, of course, needed in order to enforce compliance with stipulated guidelines. For example, a Joint Committee of the University’s Council and Senate could be empowered to set the goal and guidelines. The outcome after five years could then be used as a basis for engaging in the Russian and Chinese experiments, by selecting six universities as suggested by Adamolekun.

    Even private universities could learn from the Russian and Chinese examples, realising that there are also private universities like Harvard and Stanford University, which are in the top 10 in the world. As a member of the Elizade University Governing Council, I happen to know that this is the proprietor’s main goal and the target the university is hoping to achieve. Accordingly, necessary infrastructure, including regular power supply, and world-class teaching and learning facilities are being provided as the university grows. However, now only in its fifth year, EU still has a long way to go.

    In the next contribution in the series, I will focus on leadership and governance as a necessary factor in attaining world-class status, using as a case study the fastest-rising university in the world, namely, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

     

    Source: http://www.punchng.com

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