BOOK REVIEW: “The Road to Academic Excellence” by Philip G. Altbach & Jamil Salmi (2012)

The Road to Academic ExcellenceThe financial crisis has led to a whole range of institutions and ideas being brought into question. One of them is the research university. In a 2011 Global Focus article, Kai Peters and Howard Thomas argued that the current model of universities is unsustainable. Effectively, universities spend too much to doing things that are not resource producing. At the recent AACSB ICAM Annual Conference 2013, Ted Synder, Dean at Yale University, reiterated this view. Western universities are effectively pricing themselves out of the market, he claimed. This book is a counter argument to such claims.

Key words

Higher education, national education, university model, university rankings, research universities, strategy.


 Philip G. Altbach & Jamil SalmiThe Road to Excellence is a concise and clear argument in favour of protecting the current financial models of research universities. Paraphrasing Charles Dickens, the authors admit that theses are “the best of times and the worst of times for research universities” but that their model should be protected. Altbach and Salmi state that they make a positive contribution to low income countries as well as middle income and advanced countries. This has been born out by a 2008 World Bank report which observed that the “for success in a globalized world increasingly lies in how effectively a country can assimilate available knowledge and build comparative advantages in areas with higher growth prospects and how it can use technology to address the most pressing environmental challenges.”

The author state that universities and research institutes, more than firms, drive scientific advances in biotechnology (Cookson 2007).

As flagships for education in general, they require higher budgets and should be protected from the constraints of base mercantilism.

Jiang Zemin

President Jiang Zemin: China should have several world-class universities of international standard.

Having stated their hypothesis, the authors then invite individual contributions on various universities with a strong emphasis on Asia. Qing Hui Wang, Qi Wang and Nian Cai Liu give an interesting account of the development of Shanghai Jiao Tong after President Jiang Zemin 1998 declartation that “China should have several world-class universities of international standard.” Francisco Marmolejo gives a fascinating account of how The Monterrey Institute of Technology used loopholes in Mexican law to leverage funds through a lottery system. Narayana Jayaram describes the ultra competitive IIT system in India. Despite the huge oversubscription for places they have followed a policy of “protective discrimination” since 1973 leaving 15 percent of the seats for candidates belonging to the “traditionally excluded indigent caste” and “7.5 percent for those belonging to tribes that have remained outside the mainstream society.”

Finally, Nigeria, which has gone through a series of ups and downs in many domains including higher education, has been galvanized by the advent of world rankings, according to Peter Materu, Pai Obanya, and Petra Righetto. The advent of world rankings of universities in the past half-decade (2005, 10) This has “ignited in Nigerian educational institutions the desire to compete and benchmark their institutions” and bodes well for further development in the coming years.

Philip G. Altbach talks about Rankings in Education

At times the book becomes almost hagiographic when the authors claim that:

“Academics working at research universities are a small but extraordinarily key” part of the total academic profession. They are, indeed, a rare and special breed.”

Few people would deny that academics are “rare and special” though I suspect there would be a great debate on what those two words actually mean and whether it should be taken as a complement or not!

Government support to Universities

World class universities require massive amounts of investment from governments.

Perhaps the book could have been improved if the authors had taken on some of the major criticisms of the current university model. One chapter by Hena Mukherjee and Poh Kam Wong gives a comparative analysis of the strategies adopted by the Malaysian and Singaporean governments and the effects on the development of thier university systems. This is probably the strongest chapter in the book. For the most part though, each chapter is a general description of how one university in a particular country has gained notoriety. Though there are some variation in strategies, there is one common trait to all of them; massive inputs of money from the government. Just like in the 1960s every nation state wanted a flag carrier in the form of an airline, most developing countries see a flagship university as a way to promote their country and are willing to pay the price to get achieve that ambition.

Interesting Quotes

Research universities produce much of the new information and analysis that not only leads to important advances in technology but also contributes, just as significantly, to better understanding of the human condition through the social sciences and humanities.   (Altbach and Salmi, 2011)

U.S. Post Secondary EducationIn the United States, for example, there are perhaps 150 globally relevant research universities out of about 4,800 postsecondary institutions; India may have 10 such universities out of its 18,000 tertiary institutions, and China about 100 among its 5,000 or so postsecondary institutions. (Altbach and Salmi, 2011)

With annual enrollments in tertiary education of at least 20 percent of the eligible age cohort, massification of enrollment has been the central higher education reality of the past half-century. Since 2000, post-secondary enrollments have increased from 100 million to well over 1150 million (OECD 2008) worldwide. Half of enrollment growth in the next two decades will occur in just two countries, China and India, but because these countries enroll only 22 percent and 10 percent, respectively, of the age group, they have considerable scope for expansion (Altbach 2009).

At the heart of the research university is its academic staff, which must be committed to the idea of disinterested research.

Perhaps 90 percent of the articles appearing in the top-ranked academic journals are likely written by professors in the research-intensive universities.

Research university professors tend to be international in their consciousness and often in their work. This situation contributes to a “brain drain” from developing countries. Research university professors operate in a national environment. Like the ancient Roman god Janus, they must look in several directions at once.

These academics are also cosmopolitan rather than local in their interests and activities (Gouldner 1957)

They participate directly in the global knowledge network by attending scientific conferences, working jointly with colleagues abroad. (Altbach and Salmi, 2011)

The U.S research university model is widely considered the gold standard and is emulated globally. The quintessential U.S public research universities are those of the University of California system. (Altbach and Salmi, 2011)

Like most research universities, the University of California, Berkeley, is simultaneously international, national, and local. (Altbach and Salmi, 2011)

Philip G. Altbach talks about U.S. Education System

Research universities are in the uncomfortable position of being, for the most part, state institutions subject to bureaucratic rules and parts of complex bureaucratic academic systems. (Altbach and Salmi, 2011)

Research universities are at the center of global knowledge communication and networks. In many countries, research universities may be the only institutions adequately linked to global networks. (Altbach and Salmi, 2011)

Building World-Class Universities in China: Shanghai Jiao Tong Chinese flagUniversity (Qing Hui Wang, Qi Wang, and Nian Cai Liu)

The development of world-class research universities has been a dream of the Chinese people that can be traced to the end of the 19th century. The Chinese government adopted that goal as a national policy priority in 1998. Only one-tenth of the engineering graduates are qualified to work in multinational companies, according to the McKinsey Quarterly (Lauder, Brown, and Ashton 2008). China currently has more doctoral students enrolled in its universities than anywhere in the world. (Qing Hui Wang, Qi Wang, and Nian Cai Liu, 2011)

Doctoral Students in China

China currently has more doctoral students than anywhere in the world.

A reward of Y10,000 (about U.S $1,480) is offered for each SCI paper, of which 90 percent funds further research and 10 percent is a financial reward for the researcher. Second, the Graduate School of SJTU issued a policy that requires all doctoral students in science and engineering to publish internationally. Thus, students pursuing a PhD in sciences must publish at least one SCI paper, and students pursuing a PhD in engineering must publish at least one SCI paper or one paper in English indexed in the Engineering Index before they may apply for a doctoral degree. Only a published paper with the student’s name as the first author can be counted as one full paper. The number of SCI papers increased to 2,311 in 2007, reaching similar standards as some top 100 world-class universities. (Qing Hui Wang, Qi Wang, and Nian Cai Liu, 2011)

A university can transform into a research university by using internationalization strategies effectively (Salmi 2009).

Bilingual education has been advocated in SJTU since 1998. From 1998 to 2005, about 135 bilingual courses were offered to 11,000 students by 132 teachers. These bilingual courses represented approximately 10 percent of the disciplinary courses offered by SJTU. This proportion increased to 15 percent by 2010 (SJTU Team for GEE 2006). Little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of the delivery of bilingual courses in the university. (Qing Hui Wang, Qi Wang, and Nian Cai Liu, 2011)

SJTU research on international programs

Research conducted by SJTU confirmed importance and positive contribution of international programs.

According to research conducted by SJTU’s Graduate School of Education, students who studied abroad were satisfied and shared positive feedback on their international experience and its influence on their university (Yang et al. 2008). In 2008, 46.3 percent of these students perceived their international experience as a great opportunity for learning cutting-edge knowledge in their field, compared with only 7.4 percent of students who claimed no influence at all; 47.9 percent of students strongly believed they improved their language abilities through the programs, compared with only 5.3 percent who did not agree; 41.5 percent of students were highly aware of their enhanced confidence as a result of the activities, compared with the 7.4 percent of students who did not feel the same. Also, 39.9 percent of students found consideration for other cultures. (Qing Hui Wang, Qi Wang, and Nian Cai Liu, 2011)

books in

Constructing research universities is a thought-provoking and time-and resource-consuming endeavor for any institution in any country (Shi 2009). There is no universal formula for developing such universities (Salmi 2009).

Hong KongThe Rise of Research Universities: The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Gerard A. Postiglione)

The global university ranking indicate that the language of instruction does not automatically determine the ranking of a research university. For example, Tokyo and Kyoto universities (Japan), where much funding is allocated to translation of English-language journals, are among the world’s top-rated Asian universities. (Gerard A. Postiglione, 2011)

HKUST recruited practically all academic staff from outside Hong Kong, most of whom were born in China. If the staff had been recruited largely from the traditional expatriate and local academic pools, that practice would have detracted from the uniqueness of HKUST. (Gerard A. Postiglione, 2011)

The United Kingdom, for example, has a high proportion (27 percent) of foreign-national academic staff (Salmi 2009, 61). However, in a recent international survey, Hong Kong SAR, China, ranked second (after Australia) in the proportion of foreign nationals. (Gerard A. Postiglione, 2011)

Recruitment is one of the most strategic aspects in the rapid establishment of internationally recognized universities. (Gerard A. Postiglione, 2011)

South korea

A World-Class Research University on the Periphery: The Pohang University of Science and Technology, the Republic of Korea (Byung Shik Rhee)

Achieving world-class status requires a university to possess competitive advantages such as tradition, resources and a supportive environment. This circumstance may explain why world-class universities are concentrated in developed countries, which possess a relatively long modern-university history, a nurturing environment of abundant resources, and entrenched academic freedom. (Byung Shik Rhee, 2011)

One out of four professors in Korean universities has a U.S degree. (Byung Shik Rhee, 2011)

South Korean higher education

Korean higher education is booming.

Despite its brief history, Korean higher education has substantially expanded in scope. Currently 3.5 million undergraduate students are enrolled in about 400 colleges and universities. Roughly 80 percent of these students attend private institutions. (Byung Shik Rhee, 2011)

Internationalization has been the backbone of POSTECH’s aspiration to become a world-class research university since its foundation. To reach its goal, POSTECH developed a research network with top-class universities worldwide. (Byung Shik Rhee, 2011)

As of 2009, the university had about 10 percent foreign professors, about 4 percent international students at the graduate level, and no students at the undergraduate level. These surprisingly low proportions of international scholars and students may be attributable to the university’s location in a local city that lacks an international dimension. (Byung Shik Rhee, 2011)

Globally, higher education is increasingly valued for its links to economic development and its major contributions to a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) (Hatakenaka 2004).

SingaporeThe National University of Singapore and the university of Malaya: Common Roots and Different Paths (Hena Mukherjee and Poh Kam Wong)

Efforts to internationalize teaching and research have brought renewed focus to the tension between strengthening English and supporting Bahasa Malaysia, the national language, and the language of the Malay race. Unless political measures support the widespread use of English, the engagement of young Malaysians in global knowledge creation will continue to be limited. (Hena Mukherjee and Poh Kam Wong, 2011)

A longitudinal study in Malaysia concluded that the public education system has “in large measure been responsible for a memory-based learning designed for the average student” (Nagarej et al. 2009). Rote learning, memorization, uniformity, and conformity foster risk aversion but not the development of creative thinkers (The Economist 2000).

Singaporean governmental support to universities

Singaporean government has realized the added value of higher education to the national economy.

In addition, in the steps of Western countries such as the United States (Fiske 1997), the Singapore government recognized that education itself can be a major export industry. The government has also set a goal of attracting 10 leading universities from around the world to establish campuses in Singapore (Olds 2007).

The history of UM demonstrates that national policies can severely constrain the institutional development of a public university. This situation can have significant long-term consequences that limit the university’s capacity to pursue academic excellence and compete internationally. (Hena Mukherjee and Poh Kam Wong, 2011)

Indian flag

Toward World-Class Status? The IIT System and IIT Bombay (Narayana Jayaram)

In the realm of higher education in India, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have been islands of excellence. IITs have increased in number from the so-called original five established during the period 1950-63 to 16 in 2010. (Narayana Jayaram, 2011)

The shortage of qualified faculty members is daunting: it ranges from a minimum of 10 percent in IIT Bombay to a maximum of 60 percent IIT Guwahati. The faculty shortage in the other five IITs ranges between 14 and 37 percent. (Narayana Jayaram, 2011)

That bright young people do not opt for teaching positions is a general problem of higher education in India. (Narayana Jayaram, 2011)

The total budget of the IIT system is nowhere near that of the model (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to which it aspired.

As Thomas L. Friedman (2006, 127) notes, “up until the mid-1990s India could not provide good jobs for most of those talented engineers.” (Narayana Jayaram, 2011)

MexicoThe Long Road toward Excellence in Mexico: The Monterrey Institute of Technology (Francisco Marmolejo)

ITESM lottery

ITESM gains gross revenues of US $97 million per year from its lotteries.

The founders of ITESM took advantage of a legal mechanism allowing nonprofit organizations to conduct lotteries. ITESM conducts three editions of its national lottery annually, in which it awards prizes totaling US $23 million per year. Each edition of the lottery has 450,000 tickets that, when sold, provide ITESM with gross revenues of US $29million per edition, or US $97 million per year. (Francisco Marmolejo, 2011)

Obtaining accreditation in the United States was intended not only to gain international recognition, but also to mitigate the risk of potential changes in national regulations, which could jeopardize the institution. (Francisco Marmolejo, 2011)

11 percent of the ITESM-Monterrey campus students were studying abroad in 2008, while the campus hosted international student’s equivalent to a significant 8 percent of its total enrollment. At the graduate level, 6 percent of the ITESM-Monterrey campus students went abroad in 2008, and 15 percent of its graduate enrollment was composed of international students. (Francisco Marmolejo, 2011)

ITESM’s growth has been financed mostly by charging high tuition to students, relying on contributions from donors, and maintaining a lucrative lottery. (Francisco Marmolejo, 2011)

See also:

Other Book Reviews

The Road to Academic Excellence: Lessons of Experience – Author’s Review

Worldbank Blogs: “This new book brings together nine case-studies, telling the story of 11 institutions undergoing a complex transformational process as they strive to become world-class research universities, either by following the “upgrading” or the “starting anew” path to academic excellence.”

Other Related Articles

Singapore leaders start to talk about the importance of having multiple skills rather than just obtaining a degree.

Rightways: “A NUMBER of political leaders have appealed to Singaporeans not to place too much faith on university degrees in an apparent effort to manage public expectations. Singaporeans, especially parents, who have long regarded the university degree as a key to a good life will likely be shocked. For decades, the government has been en­couraging youths to study hard or lose out in a competitive world. This apparently spells a change in education strategy.”

My home, my school

Rightways: “While homeschooling seems to have gained popularity in Malaysia in the last 10 to 20 years, it is not a new concept. In the 1970s, homeschooling regained popularity, particularly in the United States, which is why many homeschooling syllabuses come from the US.”

At the forefront of international higher education

An International Educator in Vietnam: “On 5 April, a large group of colleagues, students and friends gathered in Boston to honour the career of Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education and J Donald Monan SJ professor of higher education in the school of education at Boston College, US. He will retire from his professorship, but continue as director of the centre.”

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Filed under Asia, Book Review, Business Schools, China, Higher Education, India, Rankings, Research, South Korea, USA

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