World-Class Universities

  • Jamil SalmiEmail author
  • Philip G. Altbach
Living reference work entry


High Education System Peer Review Process Global Ranking Excellence Initiative Shanghai Ranking 
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Top universities operating at the cutting edge of intellectual and scientific development at the global level.

Defining World-Class Universities

Within the higher education system, research universities play a critical role in training the professionals, high-level specialists, scientists, and researchers needed by the economy and in generating new knowledge in support of the national innovation system (World Bank 2002). In this context, an increasingly pressing priority of many governments is to make sure that their top universities are considered as “world-class,” meaning that they actually operate at the cutting edge of intellectual and scientific development, as recognized by the global rankings. This discussion focuses exclusively on research-intensive universities, a small but very important part of any nation’s higher education system. These universities produce most of the research, are heavily involved in advanced education at the master’s and doctoral levels, and are the primary links between a country’s science establishment and the global academic community.

The superior results of world-class universities – highly sought graduates, leading-edge research, and dynamic technology transfer – can essentially be attributed to three complementary sets of factors (Salmi 2009): (i) a high concentration of talent (students and faculty), (ii) abundant resources (financial and educational), and (iii) favorable governance (supportive regulatory framework, autonomy, vision and leadership, academic freedom) (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Characteristics of a world-class university: alignment of factors

The first and perhaps foremost determinant of academic excellence is the presence of a critical mass of top students and outstanding faculty. World-class universities are able to select the best students and attract the most qualified professors and researchers, not only from the country where they are located but also internationally.

Abundance of resources is the second element that characterizes world-class universities, in response to the huge costs involved in running a complex, research-intensive university. These universities have four main sources of financing: government budget funding for operational expenditures and research, contract research from public organizations and private firms, the financial returns generated by endowments and gifts, and tuition fees.

The third dimension concerns the degree of academic and managerial autonomy that universities enjoy. World-class universities operate in an environment that fosters competitiveness, unrestrained scientific inquiry, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity. Institutions that have substantial autonomy are also more flexible because they are not constrained by cumbersome bureaucracies and externally imposed standards, even considering the legitimate accountability mechanisms they bind them. As a result, they can manage their resources with agility and quickly respond to the demands of a rapidly changing global market. These autonomy elements are necessary, though not sufficient, to establish and maintain world-class universities. Other crucial governance features are needed, such as inspiring and persistent leaders, a strong strategic vision of where the institution is going, a philosophy of success and excellence, and a culture of constant reflection, organizational learning, and change.

It is the combination of these three sets of features – concentration of talent, abundant funding, and appropriate governance – that makes the difference. The vibrant interaction among these three groups of factors is the distinguishing characteristic of world-class universities. A recent survey of European universities confirms that funding and governance influence performance together. Its findings indicate clearly that the world-class universities tend to enjoy higher management autonomy, which, in turn, increases the efficiency of spending and results in higher research productivity (Aghion et al. 2007). The availability of abundant resources creates a virtuous circle that allows the concerned institutions to attract even more top professors and researchers. However, just investing money in an institution or making it very selective in terms of student admission is not sufficient to build a world-class university, in the absence of an appropriate governance framework at the systemic level that guarantees full autonomy and strong leadership at the institutional level to provide an audacious vision and rally the academic community around institutional efforts to achieve excellence.

The Road to Excellence

In the past, the role of government in nurturing the growth of world-class universities was not a critical factor. Oxford and Cambridge evolved over the centuries of their own volition, with variable levels of public funding, but with considerable autonomy in terms of governance, definition of mission, and direction. Similarly, the Ivy League universities in the United States grew to prominence as a result of incremental progress rather than deliberate government intervention. Today, however, it is unlikely that a world-class university can be rapidly created without a favorable policy environment and direct public initiative and financial support, if only because of the high costs involved in setting up advanced research facilities and capacities.

International experience shows that three basic strategies – not mutually exclusive – can be followed to establish world-class universities: (i) upgrading a small number of existing universities that have the potential of excelling, (ii) encouraging existing institutions to merge and transform into consolidated universities that would achieve the type of synergies corresponding to a world-class institution, and (iii) creating new world-class universities from scratch.

The first approach, which is the one that governments most frequently adopt, presents the advantage of having costs significantly lower than those involved in setting up new institutions from scratch. This is, for example, the strategy followed patiently and determinedly by China since the early 1980s, with a sequence of carefully targeted reforms and investment programs over the past two decades (211 program, 985 program, and now the World-Class 2.0 program, all of which invested heavily in the upgrading of more than 100 key Chinese universities).

The second possible approach for building up a world-class university consists of promoting mergers among existing institutions. France and Denmark are two countries that have diligently embarked on this path in recent years. In France, several universities have merged on a regional basis. In Denmark, the government set up an Innovation Fund that would reward, among other things, the combination of similar institutions. Such mergers are difficult to successfully manage and often do not yield the anticipated results.

Finally, in countries where institutional habits, cumbersome governance structures, and bureaucratic management practices prevent traditional universities from being innovative, creating new institutions may be the best approach, provided that it is possible to staff them with people not influenced by the culture of traditional universities and provided that financial resources are not a constraint. New institutions can emerge from the private sector, or governments can allow new public institutions to operate under a more favorable regulatory framework. Kazakhstan is a country following this path as it seeks to make its economy less dependent on oil and more competitive overall. For this purpose, it set up a new international university in Astana a few years back, Nazarbayev University. India, when seeking to upgrade the research and teaching capacity of its higher education system, has chosen to create new institutions rather than take on the complex challenges of reforming existing universities. Thus, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi was established, as were the world-famous Indian Institutes of Technology in several cities throughout the country.

Factors of Acceleration

Recent policy research has identified a number of “accelerating factors” that can play a positive role in the quest for excellence (Altbach and Salmi 2011). The first factor consists in relying extensively on the Diaspora when establishing a new institution. As illustrated by the experiences of Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, bringing large numbers of overseas scholars to come back to their country of origin is an effective way of rapidly building up the academic strength of an institution in a fairly rapid manner.

The second factor, using English as the main language of a university, greatly enhances an institution’s ability to attract highly qualified foreign academics and graduate students, as the National University of Singapore has managed to accomplish.

Concentrating on niche areas, such as the science and engineering disciplines, is the third suitable manner of achieving a critical mass more rapidly, as demonstrated by the examples of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the Pohang University of Science and Technology. Along the same lines, the Higher School of Economics in Russia has shown tremendous progress by focusing on the social sciences, following the example of – and in partnership with – the London School of Economics.

The fourth approach consists of using benchmarking as a guide for orienting the institution in its upgrading efforts. Shanghai Jiao Tong University, for instance, anchored its strategic planning work in careful comparisons with leading Chinese universities first and then moved to include peer foreign universities in the benchmarking exercise. Indeed, the now famous Academic Rankings of World Universities (known popularly as the Shanghai Rankings) emerged from such benchmarking efforts.

The fifth factor is the introduction of significant curriculum and pedagogical innovations. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, for example, was the first US-style university in Hong Kong, a feature that made it distinct from the existing institutions operating according to the British model. The Higher School of Economics in Moscow was among the first Russian institutions to offer a curriculum that integrates teaching and research and to establish a supportive digital library. Those kinds of innovative features – part of the “latecomer advantage” – are of great consequence for new institutions that need to be attractive enough to entice students away from existing universities and to get them to risk enrolling in an “unknown” program.

The last point worth underlining is the need for successful institutions to remain vigilant and to maintain a sense of urgency in order to avoid complacency. This aspect involves inspired leadership, continuous monitoring, and self-assessment to identify dysfunctions or threats, the capacity to act quickly to address them, and the willingness to constantly explore areas for improvement.

Do Excellence Initiatives Work?

In order to accelerate the transformation process toward building “world-class” universities along these acceleration factors, a few governments – China, Russia, France, Germany, Spain, and South Korea – have launched the so-called excellence initiatives, consisting of large injections of additional funding to boost the performance of their university sector. The selection process used to choose the beneficiary universities and/or centers of excellence is perhaps the most noteworthy element of excellence initiatives. In the majority of cases, the government’s approach has involved a competition among eligible universities with a thorough peer review process to select the best proposals. In most cases, the peer review process relies on the work of expert evaluation teams including a mix of national and international experts.

While the first excellence initiatives had more of an endogenous character, reflecting a long-term policy concern about strengthening the contribution of tertiary education to national economic development, the most recent wave seems to have been primarily stimulated by the perception of a competitive disadvantage relative to the more stellar performance of foreign universities, as measured by the global rankings. For instance, the 2013 excellence initiative in Russia explicitly aims to place 5 universities in the top 100 by 2020.

Many of these excellence initiatives mark a significant philosophical shift in the funding policies of the participating countries, notably in Western Europe. In France, Germany, and Spain, for instance, where all public universities have traditionally been considered to be equally good in terms of performance, the excellence initiative has meant a move away from the principle of uniform budget entitlements toward a substantial element of competitive, performance-based funding.

Measuring the effectiveness and impact of excellence initiatives on the beneficiary universities is not an easy task for at least two reasons: time and attribution. First, upgrading a university takes many years, 8 to 10 at the very minimum (Salmi 2009, 2012). Since many excellence initiatives are fairly recent, attempts at measuring success could be premature in most cases. It is indeed unlikely that the scientific production of beneficiary universities would increase significantly within the first few years immediately after the beginning of an excellence initiative. A thorough analysis would therefore require looking at a reasonably large sample of institutions for comparison purposes, either within a given country or across countries, over many years. The second challenge is related to attribution. Even if a correlation could be identified on the basis of a large sample of institutions, establishing how the excellence initiatives actually caused the positive changes would require an in-depth analysis.

In the absence of impact analyses of the recent excellence initiatives, comparing the results of the top universities in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Ranking) over the past decade (2004–2014) offers a few insights. The four countries that have made considerable progress are China (24 additional universities in the top 500), Australia (5 additional universities), and Saudi Arabia and Taiwan (4 additional universities each). All four countries have had one or more excellence initiatives which have facilitated sustained investment in support of their top universities.

At the bottom of the list, the main “losers” are Japan and the United States, which place, respectively, 15 and 24 universities fewer among the top 500 in 2014 compared to 10 years earlier. In the case of the United States, it is interesting to note the relatively higher proportion of public universities that dropped out of the ranking, which tends to confirm the adverse impact of the significant reduction in public subsidies since the 2007 financial crisis (or even before in some states). In 2014, the proportion of public universities in the entire contingent of US universities was 63.7%, down from 64.5% in 2004. This is a small decrease, but the trend is significant.

To a large extent, Japan’s decline may also be linked to the financial crisis, which prevented the university sector from receiving the additional funding expected in the context of the excellence initiative. Observers also note that Japanese universities have encountered difficulties in making significant progress on the internationalization front (Kakuchi 2015).

At the institutional level, the five universities that have climbed most significantly in the ranking – Shanghai Jiao Tao University and Fudan University in China, King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, the University of Aix-Marseille in France, and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology – have all received funding from their respective national excellence initiative.

Besides supporting entire universities in their improvement efforts, many excellence initiatives have offered funding to build critical mass by establishing new centers of excellence or strengthening existing ones, oftentimes with a focus on multidisciplinary approaches. A recent OECD review of excellence initiatives found that one of their major benefits has been to provide funding for high-impact/high-risk basic research as well as for interdisciplinary and cooperative research endeavors (OECD 2014).

Another important finding is that excellence initiatives may engender negative behaviors and carry adverse consequences (Salmi 2016). Policy makers and university leaders must keep in mind, in particular, the risk of harmful effects on teaching and learning quality because of the research emphasis of most excellence initiatives, reduced equality of opportunities for students from underprivileged groups as universities become more selective, and diminished institutional diversity.


The highest-ranked universities are the ones that make significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge through research, teach with the most innovative curricula and pedagogical methods, and produce graduates who stand out because of their success in intensely competitive arenas during their education and (more important) after graduation.

There is no universal recipe or magic formula for “making” a world-class university. National contexts and institutional models vary widely. Therefore, each country must choose, from among the various possible pathways, a strategy that plays to its strengths and resources. International experience provides a few lessons regarding the key features of such universities – high concentrations of talent, abundance of resources, and flexible governance arrangements – and successful approaches to move in that direction, from upgrading or merging existing institutions to creating new institutions altogether.

Furthermore, the transformation of the university system cannot take place in isolation. A long-term vision for creating world-class universities – and its implementation – should be closely articulated with (a) the country’s overall economic and social development strategy, (b) ongoing changes and planned reforms at the lower levels of the education system, and (c) plans for the development of other types of tertiary education institutions to build an integrated system of teaching, research, and technology-oriented institutions.

Although world-class institutions are commonly equated with top research universities, there are also world-class tertiary education institutions that are neither research focused nor operate as universities in the strictest interpretation of the term. Olin College of Engineering, launched 10 years ago in the United States as an innovative undergraduate school of engineering, is an example worth considering in this context. As countries embark on the task of establishing world-class universities, they must also consider the need to create, besides research universities, excellent alternative institutions to meet the wide range of education and training needs that the tertiary education system is expected to satisfy. The growing debate on measuring learning outcomes at the tertiary education level is testimony to the recognition that excellence is not only about achieving outstanding results with outstanding students but ought, perhaps, to be also measured in terms of how much added value is given by institutions in addressing the specific learning needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

Finally, the pressures and momentum behind the push for world-class universities must be examined within the proper context, in order to avoid over-dramatization of the value and importance of world-class institutions and distortions in resource allocation patterns within national higher education systems. Even in a global knowledge economy, where every nation, both industrial and developing, is seeking to increase its share of the economic pie, the hype surrounding world-class institutions far exceeds the need and capacity for many systems to benefit from such advanced education and research opportunities.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Diego Portales UniversitySantiagoChile
  2. 2.Center for International Higher EducationBoston CollegeChestnut HillUSA