The Grattan Institute is advertising a lecture on “How to create a world-class university” by Andrew Hamilton, VC of Oxford and previously Provost at Yale. As the ad says, “Hamilton has been a leader in two universities that are world class by any measure”.
Still, if we take his experience as representative the obvious answer to the question is of how to create a world-class university is “found it in 1700, or preferably earlier”. Hamilton may have some significant achievements, but the creation of a world class university doesn’t appear to be among them.
That’s a snark, but it conceals a serious point. The fact is that (with a handful of marginal exceptions) the leading universities in most developed countries, including the US, UK and Australia, are those that were leading universities in 1900. There is very little evidence to suggest that anything done by a vice-chancellor or provost can achieve more than marginal improvements in the relative ranking of a new university. Conversely (and I won’t name the Australian examples I have in mind) even spectacularly bad management can’t do much to damage a university that has been around for 100 years or more.
That in turn means that common assumptions about the benefits of competition in the university sector are almost entirely wrong. In the absence of effective market mechanisms by which well-run firms prosper and grow while badly-run firms shrink and die, competition is essentially meaningless.
The expansion of competition between Australian universities has led to huge spending on marketing and advertising, and the growth of a large supporting bureaucracy, but it’s done nothing to improve standards.