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The challenge of building world class universities in the Asian region

By John Niland - posted Thursday, 3 February 2000

To me, these are the most exciting, stimulating and challenging times for universities, although I know some say gloomily that universities are under pressure as never before. This certainly is a common view I have heard during the past year in Australia and on visits to Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom.

In the United States, on the other hand, research-intensive universities are riding the crest of rising support. And in The People’s Republic of China the Government not only recognises the importance of China’s university system overall, but is committed to promoting quite strategically a group of Chinese universities into the world-class league.

My conviction, the passion which inspires my colleagues and me at the University of New South Wales, is that despite current economic difficulties we have an historic opportunity in the Asian region:

  • To develop universities which are unsurpassed in any part of the world;
  • To use the ever-expanding frontiers of knowledge and the astonishing advances in technology to create the highest quality of research and teaching; and
  • To serve our students and our national, regional and global communities at the leading edge.

So What Does World-Class Mean?

The modern university often is a large, complex organisation with multiple stakeholders, increasingly involved in a world of global competition yet, at home, the subject of much probing and public scrutiny.

In comparison with the complexity of universities, other organisations in society – a merchant bank, a construction company, or even a railroad – often seem single-cell, amoeba-like structures.

For universities, world-class standing is built on reputation and perception – often seen as subjective and uncertain – and it requires outstanding performance in many events.

At the Top of My list is Quality of Faculty

A world-class university will be widely recognised as an eminent institution, as a place where top staff will wish to congregate. Given the chance, staff from other universities will migrate to the world-class university, and top faculty attract top students. The process is auto-catalytic. This means such a university will almost certainly be a research-intensive university. It also must teach well. But first and foremost it is a place where people will want to spend time for the experience, and to associate with the fame and respect that goes with this. Absolutely fundamental to building such a climate is the quality of the staff, especially the academic faculty members.

Research Reputation is Critical

Although there is a general awareness in the wider community that university research delivers worthwhile outcomes, there is a particular need in medium-scale economies for the benefits flowing from research to be realised.


Whilst I am not in favour of closely targeting research to narrow national objectives, I note that many of the success stories at the UNSW are in areas of vital importance to Australia. For example, UNSW’s world-class research on solar photovoltaic cells and artificial membranes for water treatment address areas of immediate national importance.

Students involved in research that leads to practical outcomes gain much from the experience.

It is largely through their research performance, and how this is carried through to excite and inform the learning process for all members of the university which will most build reputational capital, and most put it at risk. But this is not a bad thing, for systems are needed which keep the pressure on those who wish to be seen as the best. A university perceived to be world class one generation may not be there in the eyes of the next generation. Mobility in reputations, as much as with staff and students, helps keep the flame alive!

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This is an edited extract from a public lecture delivered at the National University of Singapore on the 25th June, 1998.

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About the Author

Professor John Niland was Vice-chancellor and President of the University of New South Wales and a Past President of the Australian Vice Chancellors Committee (AVCC).

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