Quantum Leaps and Excellence

It is only recently that we have begun to gain insight into quality and excellence in university education across internationally recognized standards. PISA (Project International Student Achievement) has been a leading standard for university quality, even though PISA's sphere is the performance of 16 year olds in math, the sciences, and reading. Yet, where that performance is low, we cannot expect universities to compensate entirely for the quality losses incurred earlier in primary and secondary education, while conversely, when performance of 16 year olds is high, university education can stand on the shoulders of what has been mastered at earlier ages.

The now renowned university rankings, such as the Shanghai ranking or that of the Times Higher Education (THE), focus mostly on research, albeit that the attraction for foreign students is also included in the THE ranking. Yet, for example, employment of graduates or registered unemployment is not taken into account in international comparisons, nor are other more subtle measures, like international comparable figures on knowledge, skills, and competences.

Still, it appears that countries like Korea and Singapore have been able to make the transition from elite to mass higher education more smoothly than has been the case in Europe. Also Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is doing well: 3 out 27 Saudi State universities are now in the top 500 lists, and King Abdulaziz University (KAU) is in the top 10 in mathematics. The number of universities in the top 500 from these countries is increasing in the Shanghai ranking, along with an increase in the number of graduates and substantial economic growth. Universities appear to be major contributors to the knowledge-based economies of these countries and are recognized as such. This would be impossible without due attention to quality and excellence within the universities. The degree to which they focus on quality and excellence, not only in research, but also in education is easily ascertained from the strategic plans of several of the universities. Partnerships with the regional environment are also an important element in ensuring excellence.

Yet, world-wide universities, also in emerging economies, struggle to take excellence on board. Newer universities are too easily inclined to model themselves on some of the old research universities with the professor who teaches in large lecture halls according to a curriculum which is based on what used to be understood to contain the main elements of knowledge in that discipline, without much reflection on its contribution to the required traits of graduates in the labor market. Older universities also face difficulties in reinventing themselves in light of the tremendous changes which have taken place in the way societies are organized.

 
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