What Makes a World-Class University?

Professor Andy Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, was guest speaker at a recent event run by the University of Melbourne's Grattan Institute, where the question was ostensibly "How to Create a World Class University".

Hamilton made four clear points about the task, although it was not so much the creation as the preservation of the world class university - his own, to be precise - that was foregrounded. They are worth noting, but I will expand a bit more on two.

First, he said, outstanding people are needed. University leaders have to recruit world-class academics - Hamilton used the case of Oxford's recent recruitment of Sir Andrew Wiles, prover of Firmat's Last Theorem, back to the U.K. from Princeton. The greatest motivator, Hamilton suggests, is the presence of (other) world class people. Not many less than half of Oxford's academic staff are from overseas - interestingly Australians are sixth on the list of expats, which isn't bad.

Students of outstanding ability are also important, he said, noting the importance of the Rhodes Scholarship scheme (headed by my predecessor at Trinity, Don Markwell) and of the postgraduate Clarendon awards. All Oxford students have undergone an academic interview, not merely had their A-levels checked off.

Second was research excellence, already implied by the first. Hamilton acknowledged that other institutions can also do important research, but praised the "curiosity-driven character" of university research as advantageous.

Third came excellence in teaching. Oxford's remarkable tutorial system where students meet with leading researchers, regularly and often singly, was singled out, as well it might be. I would add that the educational implications of hiring great researchers as the faculty could also be very different, when this is as clear an expectation of their presence as is their research agenda.

In the highly-specialized structure of the Oxford degree Hamilton also noted the importance of students belonging to two academic communities: the department, and the college. The former is the academic locus in a stronger way that has been the case even with traditional Australian degrees, because a student at Oxford reading (e.g.) engineering studies only that. Hamilton, formerly Provost at Yale, was careful to say this was not the only defensible model, since liberal arts curricula can achieve many of the same basic objectives. These, as he recounted them, were commendable: it is the ability to think and to communicate that reflects educational excellence, however those capacities are taught.

In the latter case, of colleges, students have peers across all disciplines. His strong suggestion that, in a "large university of 20,000", it was important for students to have such a community of a few hundred to belong to, made interesting listening for hearers whose institutions are now considerably larger than that, but where few students have those opportunities.

Fourth but not least was money. Hamilton was refreshingly straightforward about how the rest depends on it; he spends considerable time raising it.

As already noted Hamilton's talk was not really about how to make a world class university at all; it was about how to be Oxford. This in itself was worth hearing. I suspect that the question of creating a world class university is being asked more actively elsewhere at the moment; perhaps by the creators of the New College of the Humanities, but particularly by educational leaders in China and in India. Watch out for them.

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