A Tale of Three Cities

“The way to create a really great city is to establish a university. Then wait several hundred years.”

It was Mark Twain, I think, who had this important insight. Neither cities nor universities get built overnight. But having returned from visiting universities in three very major and rapidly growing cities, I had a chance to reflect on what it is taking to build world class institutions of higher education in an age of globalization.

Beijing, Taipei, and Hong Kong have over 100 universities. Five of them are in the top 100 in the world rankings. Peking and Tsinghua universities, National Taiwan University, and The University of Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology range in ranking between 36th and 60th in the Times Higher Ed World Reputation Rankings 2014. The eldest among them is Peking University, which was founded in 1898. The youngest, HKUST, was established in 1991. Tsinghua’s and HKU were both founded in 1911 and NTU in 1928. They are now all in a league with universities that are any hundreds of years older.

So does age matter?

Probably not as much as it used to. But it does take time for universities to develop the institutional resources and values that allow them to weather many different types of changing political and societal conditions in the cities (and countries) where they live.

And now it seems that universities building world class reputations and programs also need to come to terms with the wider world. At least that is what I heard in all three cities and the universities I visited on this trip to Asia.

Each university, in fact, has ambitious goals to increase the proportion of international students and to draw them from all over. Each is making it a priority to offer more courses in the 21st century’s lingua franca, and university presidents are urging more of their own faculty and national students to study abroad. That is of course good news for the Institute and those of us in the field of international education.

I was particularly struck when I learned of their concern that too few faculty or students are interested in gaining a research or teaching experience in a culture beyond their own. I was told this is due, in part, to the substantial improvement of universities at home, a number of which are now ranked among the top 500. I also heard considerable concern that, among those who do study abroad, there is too little integration into the host society, as students from China tend to live and work together.

Staying in the top ranks of league tables, indeed, is going to require an internationalization strategy. Educational authorities in each city are preparing high level plans to encourage and promote this, which was part of the reason I was in Asia this past week—and why my hosts want to visit us. My conclusion and that of the presidents and trustees with whom I met is that you can’t be world class without a 21st century internationalization strategy. And one that, in particular, includes opening the minds of your own academic stars to the world.