April 28, 2014

April 28, 2014 - It’s a familiar if not fully explained paradigm. A “World Class University” (WCU) is supposed to have highly ranked research output, a culture of excellence, great facilities, and a brand name that transcends national borders. But perhaps most  important, the particular institution needs to sit in the upper echelons of one or more world rankings generated each year by non-profit and for-profit entities. That is the ultimate proof for many government ministers and for much of the global higher education community. Or is it? 

In his detailed and prescriptive  study, CSHE Senior Research Fellow John Aubrey Douglass notes that the university rankings are to some degree useful and informative. “The problem is that they represent a very narrow band of what it means to be a leading, or what might be best called a ‘Flagship’ university within a region, within a nation,” states Douglass. “Further, WCU advocates do not provide much guidance, or knowledge, on what organizational behaviors and methods can lead to greater productivity in research, teaching, and public service that can best help leading national universities  meet the needs of the societies they must serve.”

In this essay Douglass advocates the notion of the Flagship University as a more relevant ideal -- a model for public institutions, and perhaps some private institutions, one that could supplement and alter the perceptions, behaviors, and goals of ministries and universities in their drive for status and influence in  society. “It is a model that does not ignore international standards of excellence focused largely on research productivity,” he notes, “but is grounded in national and regional service, and with a specific set of characteristics and responsibilities that, admittedly, do not lend themselves to ranking regimes. Indeed, one goal here is to articulate a path, using the language of the Flagship University, that de-emphasizes rankings and that helps broaden the focus beyond research to relevancy and responsibility.”

Douglass defines Flagship Universities as research-intensive institutions, or institutions in the process of becoming so, that have wider recognized goals and characteristics. His Flagship University profile includes an outline of mission, culture, and operational features, including internal quality practices such as post-tenure review. “While governments and other stakeholders have a legitimate claim to influence and shape the operations and missions of their universities, the Flagship model may provide a path for some universities to explain and seek greater institutional identity, a stronger internal culture of self-improvement, and, ultimately, the  greater contribution to economic development and socioeconomic mobility that all societies seek.” For that to happen in the midst of the WCU paradigm, he states, “some group of institutions will need to embrace on their own terms some version of the model and articulate it clearly and loudly.”

Earlier versions of this concept were presented at international conferences in Cape Town and Shanghai. A companion article has been published in University World News:

For access to the article, please visit:

Information on Author: Dr.John Aubrey Douglass is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley and the author of a number of articles and papers on globalization and higher education.


John Aubrey Douglass