Should we build ‘World Class Universities or World Class Higher Education Systems?’ This was the question Dr. Jamil Salmi posed at the two events held on April 3 by The UWI, St Augustine, in his honour.
At a breakfast forum hosted by Campus Principal Professor Clement Sankat at the Hilton Trinidad and Conference Centre, Dr. Salmi, a global tertiary education expert, discussed what it means to establish world class universities and other institutions. He noted that traditionally world class universities have been distinguished for having top graduates, leading-edge research initiatives and dynamic knowledge and technology transfers. They attract and manage distinguishable faculty, staff and student talents, have an abundance of resources, are successful in fund-raising, and have governance systems that are apolitical and autonomous and strong leadership teams.
He described what he termed a higher education ecosystem, pointing out the differences between ‘prestige’ and ‘excellence.’ He cautioned against using world rankings as the basis for development, remarking that their different methodologies are not entirely objective or supportive of the unique mission of a distinctive university.
He noted that there is danger in homogenization in that all institutions within a sector are not the same. Differentiated systems in higher education, that is, different institutions which focus on their strengths and the purpose for their existence, are important. He cautioned against academic drift, where institutions shift in their primary purpose/mission too quickly, causing an unnecessary strain on national and institutional resources and increased competition for markets and funds which contributes to what he terms the ‘global talent war.’
Professor Sankat underscored the comments raised by Dr. Salmi, particularly noting the leadership and economic challenges in building world class universities, whilst others raised challenging issues such as assuring and enhancing quality through accreditation, methods for raising funds, talent recruitment and management, financial challenges in current economic times, developing the ecosystem concept with differentiated institutions and focusing on relevance over ranking.
Later, at the UWI’s Distinguished Open Lecture Series, Dr. Salmi drew a vivid picture of the future of tertiary education. He challenged participants with investing in futuristic open universities that relied on the best academics to facilitate students’ learning in truly needs-driven programmes that are technology-mediated, negotiated content and primarily conscious of the career and personal developmental needs of students. “Is your tertiary education system ready?” he asked.
Dr. Salmi spoke of the importance of knowledge, changing educational needs and practices and new challenges for small states as they embrace policy reforms and institutional changes in tertiary education. He discussed the differences between poverty and wealth through creation of new knowledge economies. By different economies making the transition from primary to tertiary education access, he said, highly technological societies have developed niche products which have radically transformed their economic competitiveness, wealth and viability.
He outlined the changing skills and competencies that would be required in societies, from routine manual tasks being performed by machines to highly complex knowledge jobs done by innovative persons. He asked tertiary educators and institutions to consider what would be needed to develop these competencies as the new talent for economies. He referred to new pedagogical practices focused on the learner and the importance of re-training and re-tooling careers through continuing professional development. This means that for small island developing states, a new paradigm for tertiary education needs to be considered; one centred on quality, relevance, financial sustainability, institutional diversification and flexibility to change, he said.
Dr. Salmi’s work has taken him around 80 countries world-wide as a tertiary education policy expert with the World Bank, as an academic researcher and a policy and strategic management consultant to governments and universities in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. He has published many reports and books which have given developed, developing and transition countries much to consider in their policy reforms in tertiary education and strategic transformations within universities.
At the end of his lecture, there seemed to be a consensus from listeners that while financial constraints present limitations, leadership at all levels in the system should focus more on entrepreneurship, risk-taking, creativity and innovations as absolutely critical ingredients for institutional change and progress.
“In our sector, information technology is not seen as the core business for change but an additional component. If we have to do what Dr. Salmi suggests we need to reprioritize, realign and re-engineer,” was one comment.
“How do we make the transition?” asked one academic. “There is a difference in the response of corporate versus academic adopters. Academics generally want change but administrators are not willing to contribute or entertain these changes.”
Undoubtedly, Dr. Salmi’s presentations provoked thought into how the tertiary education sector and corresponding institutions should embrace transformation from policy-making and leadership to academic cultures. What would now be needed are measures for such changes that the tertiary education sector would have to define, enable and deliver.
Dr. Eduardo R. Ali is Programme Manager, Institutional Effectiveness, at the Office of the Campus Principal, The UWI, St. Augustine.