Professor Andrew J Deeks, President University College Dublin

Professor Andrew J Deeks, President University College Dublin

– By Professor Andrew J Deeks, President, University College Dublin

In this article, published in Ireland’s Yearbook of Education 2017-2018, Professor Deeks discusses the characteristics of world-class universities, how these are measured, the challenges facing universities, their core role and their contribution to the economy and society.

World-class

The term ‘world-class’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary in a competitive context as something ‘that is of a quality or standard regarded as outstanding throughout the world; comparable to or able to compete with the best in the world’. Based on this definition, it is interesting to consider the characteristics that make a university world-class.

What is a University?

Universities are widely and traditionally considered to be places of learning, scholarship and research, institutions which are both transmitters of knowledge and creators of knowledge. Through a sequence of degrees, students become experts in their selected discipline, contribute to knowledge in that discipline and become transmitters of knowledge themselves. Academics (or faculty) are generally involved in both creation and transmission of knowledge.

Creation of Knowledge – a defining characteristic

As it is difficult to measure and compare the effectiveness of transmission of knowledge, creation of knowledge as measured through research performance has become a defining characteristic of world-class universities.

Many would argue that world-class research performance is the defining characteristic of a world-class university.

Research performance

Of course, research performance is multifaceted, and only certain facets can be measured. We inherit a system of research publication in academic journals that dates back to 1665, when the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society were first published. Research results are described in articles or papers, and these articles are reviewed or refereed by other experts in the field, then published if they are considered to be accurate and of sufficient interest. Consequently, one way of measuring research productivity is to count the number of refereed journal articles produced by the academics and students of a university.

However, just because research is being undertaken and written up does not mean it is ‘world class’. There are now at least 25,000 peer reviewed journals publishing academic research in every conceivable sub-discipline and in many languages. Only a few of journals in each discipline are generally considered to be ‘world-class’, and this opens up the question as to how to measure the quality of different journals.

There are now at least 25,000 peer reviewed journals publishing academic research in every conceivable sub-discipline and in many languages. Only a few journals in each discipline are generally considered to be ‘world-class’, and this opens up the question as to how to measure the quality of different journals.Click To Tweet

References and citations

Even if a research paper is published in a world-class journal, the results may be of little consequence, and have little impact. One facet of the impact of a paper can be quantified by looking at the number of times the paper is referenced or cited by other papers. If the impact of a paper is taken as measured by the number of citations, then the impact of a journal can be measured by the average number of citations received by the papers published in that journal – a number known as the Journal Impact Factor.

Research performance is now overwhelmingly measured by number of refereed journal publications and number of citations. Complicating the interpretation of these two measures of research performance is the fact that the number of publications and number of citations indicating ‘world-class’ varies dramatically between disciplines and even sub disciplines, and so the numbers should only be compared directly within sub-disciplines.

Field Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI)

One attempt to do this in a rigorous way is the field weighted citation impact (FWCI), which compares the number of times a paper has been cited with the average number of times similar papers (i.e. papers published in the same year and in the same discipline) have been cited in the three years following publication.

Research published via monographs

Academics in some disciplines, particularly those in the arts and humanities, argue that the use of journal paper numbers and citations to measure research productivity does not recognise research disseminated by way of research monographs (books), a publishing channel traditionally used in these disciplines. As book numbers are small and citations of books are small, these numbers do not make effective ranking measures. In addition, while book proposals are reviewed prior to acceptance, the books themselves are only reviewed once published. Consequently research published via monographs cannot be evaluated in quite the same way as journal papers.

More journal papers being published

There is now a trend where academics in disciplines that would traditionally publish books are increasingly publishing journal papers, due to their value in rankings. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Possibility of gaming the statistics

Research publication statistics are just one way of looking at ‘world-class’ research performance. Any statistic can be gamed. A journal can increase its journal impact factor by asking authors to include more references to papers published in that journal before accepting their papers. An academic can publish review papers reviewing other research rather than reporting new research, as review papers on average receive more citations than original research papers.

A necessary but not sufficient characteristic

As a result ‘world-class’ research performance as measured by research publication statistics should be considered a necessary but not sufficient characteristic of a ‘world-class’ university.Click To Tweet

As a result ‘world-class’ research performance as measured by research publication statistics should be considered a necessary but not sufficient characteristic of a ‘world-class’ university. In other words, just because the research publication statistics of a university are world-class, that does not mean it is a world-class university, but if a university’s research publication statistics are not world-class, then it is certainly not world-class.

So what other characteristics does a world-class university have?

Importance of reputation

A world-class university must have a good international reputation. The university name is a brand. People trust degrees issued by reputable universities and publications by academics who are part of a university with a good reputation. Both the QS and the THE world university rankings employ reputation surveys for this reason. The reputation of a university is important in attracting world-class students and world-class academics.

Need for talented academics and talented students

This raises two more characteristics of a world-class university – world class academics and world-class students. A world-class university will be competing with universities around the world for talent, and attracting some of the very best. Counterintuitively, it will also be losing academics and students to other world-class universities around the world.

If no other world-class university wants to take a university’s undergraduate students as postgraduate students, postgraduates as junior academics, or to poach associate professors as professors, then that university is not world-class.

If no other world-class university wants to take a university’s undergraduate students as postgraduate students, postgraduates as junior academics, or to poach associate professors as professors, then that university is not world-class.Click To Tweet

Facilities

To compete for students and academics against other world-class universities requires that a world-class university have world-class facilities. Academics need facilities that allow them to achieve their research goals and transmit knowledge effectively. Students will judge the quality of the university by the quality of the infrastructure they see.

Funding

Finally, to be world-class, a university must be funded at a level which is competitive with other world-class universities. Funding reductions lead to increases in the student: faculty ratio, deterioration in the facilities, and decreases in competitiveness in each of the characteristics outlined above. While universities can and will survive at reduced funding levels, their ability to be a world-class university is severely impacted.

Defining features of a world-class university

In summary then, a world-class university has world-class research performance as measured by conventional research statistics, an excellent international reputation, attracts world-class academics and students from around the world, has world-class facilities, and is funded at a level which is comparable with other world-class universities.

Challenges

Consider now the challenges facing a world-class university. The caricature of a university professor interested only in their research and having little time or patience for their students is one that has been around for a long time, indicating that the tension between teaching and research is longstanding. Nevertheless, global competition (driven both by the opening of the international student market and by the creation of the rankings tables) has increased the importance of research for universities attempting to become world-class.

What is a world-class academic?

A world-class academic is one who has a world-class research record, and who may or may not be a good teacher.

A university looking to be world-class is motivated to hire such academics as they will contribute to three characteristics of a world-class university: research performance; reputation; and of course world-class academics.

Nevertheless, as the university also wants to attract world-class students, it cannot afford to let its teaching quality slip, particularly in this age of social media.

Teaching and Research: Complementary Activities

A world-class university resolves the tension between teaching and research by seeing the two as complementary activities, with the academics bringing the latest research into the classrooms, and by the students being inducted into research communities of practice through their academic programmes.

Interdisciplinary Approaches

There is increasing awareness of the need to adopt interdisciplinary approaches to address significant global issues such as climate change and sustainability, and so there is increasing pressure for world-class universities to undertake interdisciplinary research and to facilitate interdisciplinary studies. This is a significant challenge for a number of reasons.

First, research publication statistics for interdisciplinary research tend to be poorer than for disciplinary research, as the whole publication system works to drive deep disciplinary research.

Second, world-class academics working in interdisciplinary areas are very hard to obtain.

Finally, interdisciplinary research must be based on strong disciplinary research, and interdisciplinary studies run the risk of educating students who do not have sufficient depth of knowledge in any one area to be useful.

Resolving tensions

A world-class university resolves the tension between disciplinary and interdisciplinary research by focusing on strong disciplinary research and then creating mechanisms to bring disciplinary researchers together in interdisciplinary teams to address global challenges, and similarly by creating interdisciplinary studies opportunities at graduate level after students have established some disciplinary expertise.

Arts versus Science

Another tension is that between Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) subjects and the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (the so-called STEM subjects).

The STEM subjects tend to be higher cost to teach, but attract more research grants and produce more research output. The quality of the students entering also tends to be higher. However, due to more universities competing in the STEM space and hence higher competition in these subjects, in a comprehensive university the STEM subjects may be ranked lower than the AHSS subjects, despite performing much better in measures of research performance.

Depending on the funding model operating, a university may question why it is supporting lower-ranked expensive STEM subjects rather than further building the higher-ranked cheaper AHSS subjects.

On the other hand, a utilitarian government may look for more graduates in the STEM subjects for economic reasons, and may question public investment in AHSS education. Such governments may put pressure on universities either through a funding model or through policy decisions to change the mix of graduates.

Value of broad mix of disciplines

A world-class university recognises the value of having a broad mix of disciplines, and also recognises that students perform best in subjects that they are interested in and enjoy.

A world-class university also recognises that strong interdisciplinary research is built on strong disciplines, and that without a broad range of disciplines, interdisciplinary research opportunities will be limited.

In a similar way, government policy may seek increased emphasis on innovation, entrepreneurship and applied research for economic reasons, and may reduce the support given to blue-sky research and curiosity-led scholarship.

Blue-sky versus Applied

A world-class university, while recognising the value of innovation, entrepreneurship and applied research, sees these activities as part of a broader mission.

Governments must understand that successful research commercialisation is often dependent on the outputs of blue-sky and curiosity-led research, and should seek to encourage and cultivate both applied and blue-sky research and scholarship.

Governments must understand that successful research commercialisation is often dependent on the outputs of blue-sky and curiosity-led research.Click To Tweet

World-class universities also face increasing pressure to engage and contribute to the local community, and to contribute to national policies and initiatives.

Since each of these activities can complement the central mission of the university, many universities have embraced some or all of these opportunities.

Nevertheless, one should bear in mind that in terms of scale, such activities are relatively small scale compared with the central teaching and research activities of the university.

University College Dublin

For example, UCD has a very active enterprise incubator where 30 companies are based, and these companies employ some 200 people.

However, including students, faculty and staff, we have more than 30,000 people based on our campus, and so enterprise comprises less than 1% of the activity on campus.

We have a Director of Major Strategic Partnerships who facilitates the engagement of the university with a handful of major strategic industry partners. However, perhaps 1-2% of our faculty are engaged in these partnerships.

Long-lived

World-class universities are long-lived institutions which outlast individuals, governments and sometimes nations.

UCD, for example, was founded in 1854 at a time when Dublin streets were lit at night by gas lights, and transport around the city was by horse and cart. The Irish nation was only established in 1926, and there have been an extraordinary number of technological, political and social developments since that time.

MOOCs

Five years ago many people in higher education circles were talking about the rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), and predicting that these would lead to the demise of the traditional university within a decade. Such forecasts have proved to be misguided, and traditional university places are more sought after than ever before.

The number of people attending traditional universities has increased over the last five years, not decreased.

Fourth Industrial Revolution

There is now much talk about a Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is said to build on the Digital Revolution (which is now recognised as the Third Industrial Revolution), and will result from new technology being embedded within societies and in the human body.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is said to be marked by emerging technology breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, The Internet of Things and 3D printing, among others.

Indeed, research in world-class universities is contributing to developments in each of these areas, and degree programmes are now available in each of the areas. UCD recently introduced an Internet of Things Engineering degree, which is taught at our Beijing Dublin International College in China.

Will traditional disciplines become obsolete?

However, claims that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will make traditional disciplines and/or traditional universities obsolete, again far overstate the case. Although the digital revolution has taken away much of the drudgery involved in computation, programmes in Maths, Statistics, Accounting, Engineering, and so on remain just as popular and just as important as ever. This is because we still need our engineers, mathematicians and accountants to understand the principles of their subjects, even if they use digital tools to take care of the computation.

In the same way, even if our Doctors have artificial intelligence assistance and various other technologies available to help diagnose and treat patients, they will still need to be trained in the principles of medicine.

Central role of transmitting knowledge and skills remains secure

World-class universities develop thinking skills and people skills, and despite the advances in artificial intelligence, the need for these skills is increasing rather than decreasing.

Industrialisation, mechanisation, digitalisation and globalisation have removed large numbers of jobs that involved repetitive processes. Many of the jobs that remain involve higher level thinking and/or human interaction, and these are not going to be taken over by machines in the foreseeable future. The role of the world-class university in transmitting knowledge and skills therefore remains secure.

Similarly, the global research system, which consists largely of the universities, is the primary generator of the advances which are said to underlie the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the generator of new knowledge and technologies which are global common goods.

The global research system, which consists largely of the universities, is the primary generator of the advances which are said to underlie the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the generator of new knowledge and technologies which are global common goods.Click To Tweet

These advances are not achieved by any one person, but through an iterative process whereby one researcher or research group builds on the advances of another, with these advances being reported in international journals where they are available for access by researchers and developers around the world. Without this system progress would quickly come to a halt.

Summary

In conclusion, while broad engagement of a world-class university with its local, national and international communities is important, and pursuit of solutions to global challenges is also expected, the core mission of a university remains creating and transmitting knowledge across a wide range of disciplines.

World-class universities are characterised by world-class research performance, but also by high reputation, high quality students, world-class academics, and world class facilities.

World-class universities are characterised by world-class research performance as measured by conventional metrics (which are based on the number of refereed journal papers and the number of times those research papers are cited by other research papers), but also by high reputation, high quality students, world-class academics (measured by research performance) and world class facilities.

Appropriate funding

Developing and maintaining a world-class university requires funding at a level comparable to other world-class universities as such universities compete with each other for students and faculty.

An investment rather than a cost

When appropriately funded, world-class universities contribute significantly to the economy and society on local, national and global levels, and governments around the world must recognise that university funding is an investment in the future which will repay itself many times over and in many ways, rather than a cost.

Want to know more about the future of our Universities?  Then check out this piece “Funding Irish Universities to Fuel the Knowledge Economy” the Budget 2019 Submission by Irish Universities Association.  Or this piece entitled “The benefits of philanthropic funding” where  Dr. Maurice Manning discusses the benefits of philanthropic funding for universities.

And remember to find us on Twitter @EdMatters and use the hashtag #EducationMatters to keep the conversation going.