Rationale of Excellence-Driven Policies and Initiatives

The expression “excellence initiative” frequently used in the text was borrowed from the German policy in higher education. It means an initiative aimed to promote top-level research and to improve the quality of universities and research institutions in general, thus making Germany a more attractive research location, making it more internationally competitive (Kehm 2006). Making this definition more theoretical and universal, excellence-driven initiatives and policies can be described as a “large injection of funding by a national government aimed at financing the development of world-class universities in an accelerated fashion. These programs are usually very selective in terms of the number of beneficiary universities and the research focus of the upgrading efforts” (Salmi and Froumin 2013, p. 31).

There are different approaches to establish a group of globally competitive universities in different countries. The paper examines these approaches by looking at the excellence-driven policies and initiatives in more than 20 countries, including countries from the European Higher Education Area such as Germany, Denmark, Russia, and Norway, as well as the countries in other regions. Essentially, there are two main approaches to solve the problem of establishing a segment of globally competitive universities: to transform existing universities and to establish new ones. Certain countries, such as Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, have established new universities as greenfield projects, while the majority of countries concentrated on the modernization of the existing universities (Salmi 2009). Table 1 shows the spread of the excellence-initiatives throughout the world. It should be noticed that Asian and American cases are included into the list; also they could help understand the relationships between the excellence initiatives and whole system-level policies.

This list is not complete because there are plenty of projects on individual universities' creation or development which deeply vary from the above listed initiatives and could come under separate analysis. Such projects are the Masdar University in Abu-Dhabi, the Nazarbaev University in Kazakhstan, Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technologies and Innopolis University in Russia, Paris-Saclay University in France, the KAUST in Saudi Arabia. Some relatively small scale government projects on improving research and graduate education in selected universities with the support of the leading world-class universities, such as MIT-Portugal program or Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, are also not in the list.

We do not consider in this paper some projects of forming “strong” universities through a merger facilitated by the government, as Aalto University in Finland, the Beijing Medical University and Beijing University in China, the Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. Despite being incomplete, the table clearly shows that the last 15 years are the period when excellence policies gained wide distribution. Why did this happen? Which functions are charged to excellence-driven policies and initiatives? A range of interviews were conducted to look at the roots of different higher education policy initiatives. Interviews have shown that many of them grew from the “bottom” of the system, from institutional level. Governments and society often

embrace and convert them into system-wide policies.

On the other hand, excellence initiatives almost always come from the top, often from the very high levels of the government. This requires looking at this issue through the theoretical lens of the relationship between the state and higher education development. Such theoretical framework was suggested by Carnoy et al. (2013) in the recent book on higher education development in BRIC countries. It was suggested that modern state takes a more and more central role in higher

Table 1 The list of national excellence-driven policies and initiatives



Name of the policy

Allocated funds



Top-30 program (centres of excellence for 21st century plan)

US$484 million


211 project

US$3 billion



ARC centres of excellence

US$255.9 million yearly


Centres of excellence scheme

US$1.5–3 million per CoE for a maximum of ten years



985 project

US$6.6 billion (Phase II)

South Korea

New university for regional innovation project

US$1 billion


Russian Federation

Federal university program

US$411 million


1. Developing a first-class university and top research centres

1. US$1.7 billion (Phase I)

2. Teaching excellence development program

2. US$666 million



Excellence initiative

US$2.35 billion (Phase I, Phase II)

1. Brain Korea 21 program

1. US$2.1 billion (Phase II)

South Korea

2. BK21-MS global internship program

2. US$1 million

Russian Federation

Innovative university program

US$920 million


Campus for research excellence and technological enterprise

US$335 million



1. Global centres of excellence program

1. US$640,000–6.4 million per center per year

2. World premier international research centre initiative

2. US$108 million per year


1. Research centres of excellence

1. US$603.3 million

2. Competitive research program funding scheme

2. 4–8 US$ million per program over 3–5 years



Global excellence research chairs

Each 29 chair-holders and their research teams receive up to US$10 million over 7 years


211 project (Phase III)



Investment capital for university research

US$79.3 million


Operation campus

US$6.2 billion


Accelerated program for excellence (APEX)



World-class universities program


South Korea

National project towards building world class universities

US$720 million



Name of the policy

Allocated funds


Russian Federation

National research university program

US$1.6 billion


International campus of excellence

US$313.3 million


National research universities development project

US$380 million



I-CORE—the Israeli centres for research excellence

US$360 million


Excellence laboratories

US$1.24 billion



985 project (Phase III)



1. Excellence equipment program

1. US$1.24 billion

2. Excellence initiative

2. US$9.53 billion


1. Moving into top universities program

1. US$330 million

2. Teaching excellence program (second phase)

2. NA


Higher education reform bill




2011 plan (Phase I)



Excellence initiatives for training

US$185.8 million


Excellence initiative (Phase II)

US$2.97 billion


Universities of research and innovation bill



Creation of “national centres of research excellence” (KNOW)

US$90 million


Russian Federation

Global competitiveness enhancement of Russian universities (“5–100”)

US$880 million (2013–2017) (entire project will be implemented until 2020)



Africa higher education centres of excellence

$290.8 million (The World Bank)


Top global university project

$65 million (the project will be implemented for 10 years)


Science technology and innovation strategy

$1.3 billion (the project will be implemented for 10 years)

Source Salmi and Froumin (2013) adjusted

education development because the expansion of higher education is the key for the development of modern economy, and because a state seeks the legitimation by expanding the higher education and showing its global quality, global competitiveness. This framework refers to John Meyer's on how and why states gain their legitimacy (Boli et al. 1985; Meyer and Rowan 1977). It is argued that under the globalization process governments need not only internal, but also global legitimacy to be competitive and to act as an equal partner in international collaboration.

Within this framework, the main reason for the government intervention in the form of excellence driven policies becomes clear. It lies in the fact that the governments are not happy with the slow evolution of the higher education systems. It is understood by the states that universities could play a significant role in the development of globally competitive innovation-based economies or in the global political and cultural competition.

Governments want universities to bring the fruits of the innovation economy as fast as possible. Governments accelerate the changes through the regulatory framework, push universities to compete internationally by offering them additional funding, and direct the universities on what and how they should do.

Some countries, for example, Australia and the United Kingdom, consider their higher education systems not just as innovation-based economy growth drivers, but also as direct economic agents that produce a significant part of the national GDP by selling the educational services, especially to foreign students. For instance, education exports are Australia's fourth largest export, generating $15 billion revenues each year, most of which in higher education. Over the past five years, international students have provided Australian universities with $18.5 billion (Group of Eight 2014, Australia 2014). For such countries as Australia, the existence of world-class universities makes the whole higher education system more attractive for the international students. This fact indicates that one of the main objectives of the world-class universities is the attraction of international students promoting the whole higher education system globally.

The role of universities in attracting foreign students and best professors as future cadres of innovative economy is indeed an important part of the rationale. Most countries realized that they should be on brain gain rather than on brain drain side. Internationally branded universities could be convenient and efficient channels for such migration of talents (Salmi 2012). Cambridge, ETH Zurich and Imperial College are world-class universities that may serve as examples of such attractors within the European higher education area.

Another important driver of the excellence initiatives is the growing focus on the research as a part of the public policy. Despite the fact that most policy documents describing the excellence initiatives state that such initiatives are aimed at improving the whole higher education system or at least the process of education at selected universities, in reality they create the conditions for the research universities, not the so-called teaching universities, to flourish. As K. Mohrman noted, the excellence initiatives promote a more or less universal model of global research university (Mohrman et al. 2008).

Various governments put the excellence initiatives into broader frameworks of strengthening the research productivity of the universities. They supported not just universities as a whole institution, but separate advanced research centres and individual departments as well. Like Germany or Canada, these countries created a comprehensive “excellence package” that included “excellence measures” of different scale. It helped these countries to involve more universities in such programs and to create favourable environments for them.

Similarly, the series of the states introduced “excellence initiatives” together with the measures to support excellence and innovations in education. Germany made the development of modern graduate school part of its excellence program. Canada, in its turn, introduced “The Canada Research Chairs” program to support research and innovation development in Canadian universities, and to attract leading scholars and scientists. French government is well-known for its initiatives to establish “poles of competitiveness” as the mechanisms to promote regional economic growth.

Some countries had quite specific additional rationale to introduce the excellence initiatives. Big countries like China, India and Russia, in addition to the reasons which were discussed above, tried to solve the problem of the regional development by establishing world-class universities in regions or macro-regions.

Another rationale to implement excellence-driven policies comes from the countries with the objectives for the development of specific sectors of economy. In this case, the French “poles of competitiveness” included the development of the universities that became the parts of the industrial clusters relevant to such activities as automotive industry, aeronautics, pharmaceuticals, instrumentation, communication equipment and chemistry (Bretones 2011). Abu-Dhabi invested a huge amount of money into the establishment of the Masdar Institute with a clear specialization in sustainable technologies as a part of the Masdar sustainable city project (Lau 2012). Brazil invited MIT to contribute to the development of a small university specialized in aviation. Singapore (having already two excellent universities) decided to create another one, also with MIT support, in the area of design (SUDT-MIT 2014).

The desire to have world-class universities has its roots not just in rational considerations, but also in the symbolic role of such universities. They are increasingly becoming a part of the legitimation of the state, like a football team or the national opera. The expansion of international rankings has made the governments vulnerable in defending their global legitimacy in the area of higher education. Before the universities were compared internationally, governments could hide behind the history of particular universities or could build impressive university campuses to create an impression that the country had great universities.

The rankings made the competition between the states very visible. It should be stressed that the international rankings are playing a more and more important role in such policies. The rankings are most commonly recognized as an indicator of success of excellence-driven policies (Salmi 2009). Moreover, in some cases there is a substitution of concepts when places in the rankings become main goals by themselves, but not the detectors of policy implementation.

This fact shows how the political and broad social and economic objectives of the excellence-driven policies shape the model of the world-class university. Indeed, the research and educational productivity of a particular university could be high even if this university does not have a lot of international students. However, these students are becoming a symbol of a global recognition and strong economic impact of such universities.

The emergence of the excellence-driven policies also reflects the growing influence of the New Public Management in higher education (Bleiklie 1988; Ferlie et al. 1996; Hood 1991; Stech 2011), such as performance based funding, accountability, external quality control, or business-like managerial practices. One of the objectives of new public management in higher education is the strengthening of the competition between the universities. Such competition leads to greater differentiation in higher education system (Froumin et al. 2014) and creation of segments of losers and winners. It should be admitted that the analysis of the histories of some excellence initiatives has shown that the government pressure was not fully coercive—it was supported by the winners—the leading universities that considered the excellence initiative as the opportunity for them.

Bologna process had also created favourable conditions for the excellence-driven policies. This process moved from very national (local) and peculiar higher education systems into more comparable and even similar mechanisms. Bologna Process has opened the door to the creation of a harmonized regional higher education space which was supposed to make European higher education more competitive and attractive, specifically to US higher education (Kehm 2010). The internationalization became the focus of higher education development. Therefore, the international recognition of the universities, their role in international academic mobility attracted more than ever the attention of policy-makers.

This analysis shows that almost in all cases the rationale behind such initiatives was in the state economic, political and social objectives. The “natural” development of universities was not the source of the policy changes.

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