Debating World Class Universities

By Ruth Hayhoe

Stanford University has a centre in a beautiful classical building in the historical section of Peking University’s campus where a two day forum considering an institutional perspective on world class universities was held on November 4 and 5.


The initiators of the forum were Professor Min Weifang (pictured with Glen Jones and Ruth Hayhoe), former Chairman of Council for Peking University and Professor Jean Oi, a senior political scientist at Stanford.

The forum provided a range of interesting comparative perspectives on what it means for universities to be world class and what kind of institutional patterns as well as societal and governmental factors underlie their emergence.

With distinguished scholars of higher education and university leaders from China, Hong Kong, Macau, the USA, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Australia and the United Kingdom as keynote speakers and panel presenters, it was a dynamic two days of debate and discussion. The themes covered included differentiation of higher education systems, institutional and organizational contexts of world class universities, managerial characteristics and the social development of worldclass universities.

Just to highlight a few of the keynote speakers, it was fascinating to hear historical and sociological perspectives in the US context from Professor Roger Geiger and Professor John Meyer, which gave deep insights into particularities of the US experience as well as more general societal consequences of a massification of higher education that has universal dimensions.

On the side of Russia, Professor Isak Froumin gave a picture of main characteristics of a state-driven environment for higher education, with a focus on actorhood and autonomy. Professor Motohisa Kaneko and Takahiro Ueyama of Japan looked at design issues in the creation of Super Research Universities in Japan and the ways in which Japan is still seeking to emulate institutions such as Stanford and the University of California in terms of strategic management.

Professor J C Shin of Seoul National University spoke about some of the obstacles to change rooted in disciplinary culture in Korea’s most influential public university while Professor Jaeho Yeom, President of Korea University gave a somewhat different perspective from this prestigious private university.

A number of university leaders from Greater China, including Zhao Wei, President of University of Macao and Tony Chan, President of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology gave talks that highlighted unique features of their institutions.

Professor Simon Marginson gave a dynamic keynote speech, looking at research productivity as measured in various rankings in the context of a comparative analysis of state power, bureaucratic power and academic power in the world class multiversity. Our own Glen Jones preferred to avoid the term worldclass and use the term major research universities while presenting some of the current challenges faced by Canadian universities in academic self-governance.

The core idea for this stimulating two day event was developed by Professor Min Weifang, a remarkable figure in Chinese higher education as the first Party Secretary in contemporary China with a PhD from the United States. He got his doctorate in economics of education at Stanford in the early 1990s, worked for a short period with the World Bank and then decided to return to Beijing at a difficult time in China’s relations with the Western world. He began as Director of the Institute for Higher Education at Peking University, then as Vice President in 1998 he hosted a celebration of the university’s 100th anniversary which attracted presidents from top universities around the world.

A few years later he was appointed Party Secretary or Chairman of Council and in this role he guided Peking University over a period of nine years, ensuring a high degree of academic freedom and spearheading many new developments. Since stepping down a few years ago he has continued supervising doctoral students and teaching courses in the economics of education at PKU’s Graduate School of Education.


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