The WCU: a necessity or a whim?

Қазіргі уақытта университеттер мәдени және білім беру жуктемені ғана емес, онымен қатар ұлттық жетістік индекаторы болып табылады. Бұл үкіметтің жоғарғы білім беру жүйесін инвестициялауға ынталандырудын натежесі әлемдік университет деңгейін құруға мүмкіндік тудырады. Алайда, әлемдік деңгейдегі университет деген не, және ол, оның құрылуына жұмсалған қаржыны ақтай ма? Бұл жұмыс келесі осы мәселерді анықтауға тырысады.

Университеты в наши дни несут не только культурную и образовательную нагрузку, но и являются индикаторами успеха нации. Это стимулирует правительства инвестировать в систему высшего образования и зачастую результатом может явиться создание университета мирового уровня. Однако что такое университет мирового уровня и оправдывает ли он вложенных в его создание средств. Данная работа попробует разобраться в этих вопросах.

Nowadays universities no longer serve only cultural and educational purposes, but became indicators of nation’s success. This stimulates governments to interfere into tertiary education systems which results in the development of world-class universities. But what is a world-class university and does it justify public investments? The present work attempts to find the answers.

Nowadays universities no longer serve only cultural and educational purposes, but became indicators of nation’s success. This stimulates governments to interfere into tertiary education systems which results in the development of world-class universities (hereinafter WCUs). Globally different countries took the effort to establish WCUs starting from mega-merger Aalto University in Finland and ending with Excellence Initiative in Germany (Cremonini, Westerheijden, Benneworth, & Dauncey, 2014). However, worldwide ‘WCUs fever’ does not provide underpinning rationales behind the creation of world-class universities as well as comprehensive definition of ‘world-class’. As Altbach correctly noticed about WCUs “everyone wants one, no one knows what it is, and no one knows how to get one” (as cited in Salmi, 2009, p. 4). Nevertheless, I will try to understand the rationales behind the establishment of WCUs, and explore the concept of WCU by applying it to Nazarbayev University.


Cremonini, Westerheijden, Benneworth, and Dauncey (2014) connect the rise of WCU programs to league tables. Hazelkorn concurs with Cremonini et al. by specifying that “being in the ‘top 100’ has uncritically transformed the words ‘world-class’ into a national and institutional strategy and aspiration ” (2014, p. xi). Similarly, Ritzen (2010) claims that those countries which felt underrepresented in league tables started building new universities to improve their ranking performance.  Obviously, these authors do not consider any academic or economic rationales, but rather heavily discuss non-existent ‘show off’ rationales underpinning the establishment of WCUs. Then, what about NU? When president spoke about the establishment of NU (Nazarbayev, 2006) he announced that the university would serve educational purposes of the country. Three years later in 2009, he emphasized that NU would be the most important national project which would build the fundamental for Kazakhstan while combining national identity with the best international training and research praxis (Nazarbayev, 2009). Likewise, the mission of the university envisages NU “to be a model for higher education reform and modern research in Kazakhstan and to contribute to the establishment of Astana as international innovation and knowledge hub” (NU, 2013). Apparently, the main rationale underpinning the establishment of NU is academic. However, Koch (2013) asserts that NU owes its existence to political elites. She explains that knowledge economy discourse is used by political elites to demonstrate to the citizens that they are committing to national future, and ease the pressure from population for ‘pillaging’ the country’s resources (p. 49). Though I would argue with Koch by saying that knowledge economy discourse became a global discourse and not only in “ruling bargain”[1] (Koch, 2013, p. 47) states, but also in democratic states, there is a kernel of truth in her words. Therefore, I would suggest that both academic and political rationales underpinned the creation of NU.

WCU Concept

Having discussed the possible rationales it is timely to investigate the phenomenon of WCUs. There are conceptual (Salmi, 2009; Shin, 2012) and empirical approaches (Times Higher Education ranking, n.d.; Shanghai ranking, n.d.) to understand the phenomenon of WCUs. For instance, empirical observations of the universities in the top list of Times Higher Education and Shanghai rankings stimulated them to derive the ‘formula’ of a WCU. These rankings provide clear statistical indicators characterizing WCUs such as fixed amount of annual income per academic (THE), or average annual expenditures per student (Shanghai ranking), or particular percentage of international staff and students. However, it is not acceptable to derive such a ‘formula’ as the majority of the universities occupying top positions are either from the US or the Great Britain. Therefore, it appears that a WCU is inherently American or British. Shin (2012) abandons such utilitarian approach to understanding WCUs and proposes more abstract concept. He proposes WCU to serve global missions, produce globally influential knowledge and global leaders. Otherwise, any other top ranked research universities which do not meet these criteria are national-class or local-class universities (Shin, 2012).Though, Shin’s approach is rather ‘global’ it is still extremely vague and doubtful. On the contrary Salmi’s approach is neither utilitarian nor abstract. Salmi proposed more manageable definition of a WCU by asserting that superior outcomes of WCU, such as highly sought graduates, leading edge research, and technology transfer, are dependent on the following factors: concentration of talented faculty and students, abundant resources allowing the university to create sufficient environment and conduct research, and finally favorable governance features (Salmi, 2009, p. 19).

The Case of NU

By concentration of talent Salmi implies the ability of WCUs to choose among the best students and hire the most accomplished foreign and domestic professors and researchers. Accordingly, NU positions itself as a merit-based institution which accepts the best and brightest through three-step admission process, under the responsibility of University College of London, sifting the rest of the applicants. Moreover, NU addresses the best hiring practices to build qualified faculty body (NU, 2013). At the moment the faculty of the university is primarily international as there are 200 faculty members and 85% of them are foreigners (OECD, 2017, p. 169).

Another defining characteristic of a WCU is abundant resources which include public budget resources, endowment revenues, tuition fees and research grants. In this regard, NU could be characterized as the only university in the country which enjoys unprecedented flow of public resources, is secured by Nazarbayev Endowment Fund and has highly-competitive faculty and researchers able to attract research grants. At the same time, it is difficult to define the share of tuition fees as the majority of students are holders of NU grants. Though it is impossible to say whether NU is attracting enough research grants or tuition fees, state appropriations compensate for all the budget ills.

The last characteristic is favorable governance which involves autonomy and academic freedom as well as strong leadership team. Here NU can boast its special status as an autonomous university sought to enjoy academic freedom. The Law on special status of the university was passed in 2010 by the Parliament’s Lower House (Seidimbek, 2013) and signed by the President in 2011 (NU, 2013). In accordance with this Law the governance structure of NU is presented by Supreme Board of Trustees, Board of Trustees and Executive bodies of the university (NU web-site). As the OECD team observed “Nazarbayev University provides one example of a workable governance model that other institutions in Kazakhstan can learn from” (OECD, 2017, p. 272).

Having applied Salmi’s framework, from the first glance, NU has the potential of becoming a WCU as it meets all of the criteria: it is a merit-based autonomous university which enjoys extensive public resources and attracts qualified faculty and staff. However, does it justify people’s trust and abundant public investments? One of the opinions suggests these resources better to be spent on existing higher education system (Koch, 2013). This opinion is opposed by NU supporters who believe NU experience to be translated onto other higher education institutions and bring systemic improvements. Unfortunately, these debates will continue as the novelty of WCU policy approaches, and long timescale necessary for producing the system-wide benefits, do not allow to analyze WCUP’s benefits ‘ex post’. Therefore, the issue remains open for public discussion giving a hope that future will settle this dispute.


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World-Class Research Universities, New York: World Bank

Cremonini, L., Westerheijden, D., Benneworth, P., & Dauncey, H. (2014). In the shadow of

celebrity? World-class university policies and public value in higher education. Higher Education Policy27(3), 341-361.

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Koch, N. (2014). The shifting geopolitics of higher education: Internationalizing elite

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[1] Is a state where citizens exchanged their political rights for welfare state goods

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