Transforming Research Universities in Asia and Latin America – World Class Worldwide

Fion Choon Boey Lim (Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, Australia)

Quality Assurance in Education

ISSN: 0968-4883

Article publication date: 25 April 2008



Choon Boey Lim, F. (2008), "Transforming Research Universities in Asia and Latin America – World Class Worldwide", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 16 No. 2, pp. 199-201.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The pressures for change in higher education systems are being experienced worldwide. These pressures are no less for developing nations, in fact they are likely to be far greater. Around the globe, developing and middle‐income countries struggle with daily issues that are critical for their survival in an increasing competitive and globalized world. This book, Transforming Research Universities in Asia and Latin America – World Class Worldwide, is based on the premise that research universities are central to the modernization and development of less well developed nations. However, the book's chapters fail fully to address the specific question of how research universities can serve the development imperative for these economies.

The book confronts the confusing and sometimes conflicting objectives for “research universities” and “world‐class universities” in developing nations in a global higher education environment. Altbach, for example, advocates that a research university should function as a national knowledge transfer centre, with research outputs disseminated in indigenous languages. But to assume the classification “world‐class”, increasingly universities need to publish articles in English publications that are captured by databases such as Institute of Scientific Information index. This is but one of the challenges facing universities in the developing world.

The opening chapter by Altbach sets the scene for a thorough analysis of the roles of and challenges for research universities in developing nations by defining several characteristics that research universities should exhibit. In doing so he clarifies the differences between state universities, flagship universities and world‐class research universities. Altbach's benchmarks are primarily USA and Japan. But both these nations are developed countries, largely industrialized and operating in relatively stable political environments, thus sharing little in common in terms of historical background, political development, economic conditions, language and other social factors with the less well developed nations of China, India and the Latin American countries on which the book is focused.

The book is organized into three sections. The first section is written by Altbach. The second section examines the challenges and the roles of state universities in China, India and South Korea. The third section focuses on four Latin American countries, namely Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Argentina. The final chapter, by Balan, presents a comprehensive analysis of the preceding chapters.

In both China (Chapters 2 and 3) and India (Chapters 4 and 5) the political climate and the economic constraints are highlighted as the major obstacles to the development of state universities. Tight control by the ruling governments restrain the freedom of speech vital for research. Further, relatively low faculty salary levels limit the capacity of universities to attract world‐class professors and the volume and quality of research is similarly constrained. Ironically, Altbach earlier stressed the need for research universities to receive considerable government funding, in order to become world‐class, but while maintaining a high level of autonomy in research directions. In nations where accountability is the norm, even in developed countries like UK and Australia, it is difficult to imagine how autonomy can co‐exist with generous public funding in less well developed countries such as India. This is especially so where there are more urgent needs in these nations such as public health and infrastructure. Tsinghua University, discussed in Chapter Two by Liu, however highlights a possible solution – university‐run enterprises in which research outputs are commercialized to generate funding. Even so, this is not a full solution for autonomy and self‐sufficiency as such approaches favour applied research in which results are more likely to be commercialised.

The notion that “out of quantity will come quality” (p. 103) provides an eye‐opening insight into Indian research universities. As a result of India's commitment to overcoming social disparities, 50 to 70 per cent of student administration and faculty appointments are reserved for members of lower castes. India, as a poor nation, has opted “for more, not for better” in research education (p. 104). Consequently, Indian universities produce a large number of only moderately well‐prepared research students. The negative effect on overall research quality serves as a reminder for countries seeking to promote diversity and equity for access to higher education.

Chapter 6 on “the making of a world‐class university at the periphery”, Seoul National University (SNU), addresses the various factors essential for developing a world‐class research university. One of the factors that is relevant for many countries is that a holistic view needs to be taken on education, across all sectors. The success of SNU is in many ways due to the strong emphasis on quality of the pre‐university education by both the South Korea government as well as the general public.

Latin American nations shared little commonality with Asian nations in terms of historical, political and social backgrounds. Schwartzman (Chapter 7) and Steiner (Chapter 8) focus on Brazil, presented subtle counter‐arguments to the Altbach's assertion that “every one wants a world‐class university…no country feels it can do without one” (Altbach, 2003, p. 5). Both authors argue that the Altbach's definition of a world‐class research university is Anglo‐Centric and disagree with the roles Altbach specifies a research university should play. Schwartzman argues that the University of the State of Sao Paulo has fulfilled all the roles of providing high quality research but has never listed as one of the world‐class due to several reasons. One, as pointed out by Steiner, is the skewed emphasis on publications captured by indexes that recognise English as the primary publishing medium. For example, while the 150 Brazilian journals kept by the virtual, online library (Scielo) are accessed over two million times annually, the Institute of Scientific Information indexes only a small percentage of these journals (p. 181). With the Shanghai Jiao Tong University ranking and Times Higher Education Supplement survey placing much importance to such indexes, Steiner argues that Brazilian universities are significantly disadvantaged in such ranking exercises because of the bias towards English in the criteria used.

The two chapters on Chile and Argentina are relatively shorter chapters. In Chapter 11, Bernasconi discusses the history and development of Chile's best performing research universities and how they were transformed from teaching to research‐oriented institutions. Nonetheless, no university in Chile satisfies the criteria of a research university. In Chapter 12, the University of Buenos Aires is examined in detail. Garcia de Fanelli describes the decentralised structure of the university and how the political tensions, economic crisis, and conflicting views of political parties, students, alumni and professors have all contributed to the incapacity for the university to evolve into a research‐oriented university. Both of these authors have relied heavily on the American model as a basis for their “ideal” research university.

This book makes a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the evolving idea of “The University”. It provides thought provoking ideas on how state universities in developing nations can improve their environment for research and is useful reading for people who wish to know more about the challenges, corporate governance and roles of state universities in the case study countries. But beyond providing a good background, scholars or administrators who are looking for information on policy reformulation or on ways to reorganize and restructure their universities will find few answers.

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