What makes global universities rich?
Updated on Mar 27, 2014 - 4:09 p.m. IST by Prerna Singh

SABINE Behrenbeck, Head, German Excellence Initiative says as a matter of fact, “With a steep funding of € 4.6 billion approved for investment it can be assessed as a proof for the increasing importance of research and Higher Education in Germany.” That is about 36,000 crore rupees of special funding spread over 10 years. The scenario is the same in Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, China, Japan to name a few. In the race to be counted amongst the best universities of the world, each of these countries is investing seriously in ramping up both qualitatively and quantitatively. And the results are there to see. The approach varies. Germany funds multidisciplinary projects with focused transnational participation, China seeks to attract globally renowned faculty, and Japan aims at establishing truly world beating centres of excellence.



Project Name Brain Korea 21 (BK21)

Amount First Phase US$1.4 billion

Second Phase: US $2.1 billion No. of Universities
Total 65 universities,
500 research teams

Goal To improve research quality among young faculties and increasing qualifications of future job seekers

Outcome The number of articles by Korean scholars increased by 15.6%. Acquisitions of both international and domestic patents also increased up to almost 30%; Universities have adopted a performance-based promotion system in order to ensure academic competition among professors

What is the objective?

The objective remains the same. To be counted amongst the best in the world and no expenses or effort is spared for the same. The objective of Taiwan’s ‘Development Plan for World Class Universities and Research Centres of Excellence’ is to “elevate at least one university in Taiwan to top 100 world-class status within 5 to 10 years, starting from the year of 2005”. And money is no constraint. South Korea  has a scheme called, Leaders in Industry-University Cooperation Program (LINC), which targets spending an average of KRW 3.4 billion per university to nurture college education through industry interactions.


kaustAttracting global faculty or setting up research centers

Nations follow multiple routes to achieve excellence. China, for example, had a “1000 Talent Plan” where the focus was to get 1000 non-ethnic world-class researchers into the Chinese academic system. On the other hand Singapore focused on establishing leading research centres to upgrade research facilities to produce world-class leaders, which has been the leading focus of most of these funding schemes.

“Having a research centres of excellence draws world-class scientists, then younger researchers benefit from their teaching and mentorship. We expect the habits and practices of excellent research to rub off on our postgraduate students and undergraduates doing projects with us. We also hope to feed the pipeline of future researchers by inspiring bright, young students into science,” elaborates Jenny from National University of Singapore who works at The Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT). Japan too had a World Premier International Research Center Initiative (WPI) which aims at building globally visible research centres where each centre received up to Â¥0.7 billion/year.


Either way they are very elitist and exclusive

Selection of universities for granting of funds is exceptionally competitive. In Singapore, for example, only two reputed universities in research were selected to host their Research Centres of Excellence. In Hong Kong the first four round of funding saw acute competition between the four prominent universities in Hong Kong namely, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Hong Kong Baptist University.


Results are monitored with a hawk eye

Rigorous competition streamlines the potential research ideas into viable research projects. Twelve out of hundred universities that participated were selected for the prestigious category of Russia’s ‘National Research University’ status. The select universities will receive a funding of “USD 110 million approximately within 5 years”.

Russia’s NIU programme allows distribution of fund “in tranches, with new funding dependent on results.” It has laid down key parameters for gauging the success of the project such as, “the promotion of younger researchers and instructors, development of new technology and new pedagogical methods, publications in internationally recognized journals, and the transfer of university intellectual property to the market.” Accountability has been factored in at all levels where a non-performing university may even stand to lose the prestigious status and grant.

As Dr. Behrenbeck explains in case of Germany, “After selection of the projects the distribution of the funding lies within the responsibilities of the universities but the researchers have to demonstrate their progresses in the context of the internal monitoring system of the university (checking goals and outcome/progress).” Several stages of evaluation are implemented by the institute as well as the funding authority to realize the full potential of research infrastructure and avoid wastage.

Select funding schemes ...

Country: Germany

Project Name German Excellence Initiative

Amount € 2.7 bn for the second programme phase (2012-2017)
No. of Universities 44 (2012-17)
Goal To increase visibility of top universities and research areas in science and humanities Outcome More than 6000 new positions in research (reporting year 2011)

Country: Singapore

Project Name Research Centres of Excellence (RCEs)
Amount S$16.1 billion for 2011-2015 under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2015 plan
No. of Universities 2

Goal To set-up five research centres within the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University  
Outcome Earth Observatory of Singapore: 2008; Centre for Quantum Technologies: 2008; Cancer Science Institute of Singapore: 2008; Mechanobiology Institute, Singapore: 2009;
The Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering: 2011

Country: Taiwan

Project Name Development Plan for World Class Universities and Research Centers of Excellence

Amount NT$50 billion (US$1.70 billion) for 2006-11
No. of Universities12
Goal To elevate at least one university in Taiwan to top 100 world-class status within 5 to 10 years Outcome 10 universities were listed in the top 500 in the QS World University Rankings in 2011, marking the highest number ever; National Taiwan University (NTU) continued to rise in the rankings, reaching 87th, up seven spots from 2010

Country: Japan 

Project Name Global COE (Centers of Excellence)

Program Amount Budget for the FY2012 is 13.1 billion yen

No. of Universities 10 proposals accepted each year in every field

Goal To provide funding support for the development of internationally outstanding centers of education and research Outcome FY2012 Post-project evaluations of 63 projects selected in FY 2007

Country: Hong Kong

Project Name Areas of Excellence Scheme
Amount In the first four rounds, the UGC funded ten projects with a total of $427 million. Fifth round: $378 million 
No. of Universities 5 Goal To boost research capacity, specifically in areas which have a chance of gaining international influence.

Country: Saudi Arabia 

Project Name Office of Competitive Research Funds OCRF (formerly Global Collaborative Research) at KAUST Amount

No. of Universities 2

Goal To promote KAUST as a unique center of excellence for the scientific and economic development of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Outcome More than 1,200 scientific articles arising from KAUST grant awards were published since the start of the first Global Collaborative Research (GCR) Programs; Over 100 invention disclosures have been filed by KAUST grant awardees

What can India learn?

“India doesn’t have world-class institutions because bulk of our teachers are not researchers across colleges. You cannot inspire students, cannot turn them into researchers until you yourself are a researcher. We are not at the cutting edge because there are only a few institutions where research and teaching go together,” says DrGirishSahni, Director, IMTECH, Chandigarh.

Select Indian research institutions are performing exceedingly well in research and publications but that are confined to pockets of excellence. This calls for the incorporation of fundamental changes in Indian higher education system. As Dr. Nikhil Sinha, Vice Chancellor, Shiv Nadar University points out, “Provide the faculty with resources and then hold them accountable. You have got to change the terms and conditions of the work environment and promotions, recruitment and retention.” The research potential as well as teaching standards in India have to be upgraded across varied disciplines.

“We have become very complacent. First and foremost we have to open ourselves to peer review and scrutiny,” says Prof. Indranil Manna, Director, IIT Kanpur. “With review and analysis, a country as diverse as ours can reap the benefits of demographic dividend by 2020. We need to create good infrastructure as there is no dearth of manpower. We have to empower them,”  says Prof. Manna. Across the world, research initiatives are mostly spearheaded by the national science and research councils of respective nations. The systemic operations of selection of proposals, grant of funds, post evaluation have paved the way for policies on similar lines year after year. The race to reach the top-class league needs not just heavy investment from the government agencies but discipline and commitment towards academics and research in a scientific manner. 

Sabine-BehrebecDr. Sabine Behrenbeck


"Each country must choose a strategy that is most suitable for it"

Q. What has been the progress and highlights of the second phase of German Excellence Initiative?

A. It was to stimulate competition between new projects and those already funded within the program. The evaluation procedure remained unchanged, except that more flexible funding amounts were given.  It is too early to present detailed results, however, some of the highlights are that there is new money in the German System of Higher Education and more than 6000 new positions in research (reporting year 2011). Besides, there is professionalization of governance and strategic capacity of universities and impulse to more internationalization, diversity of faculty and student body. There is creativity boost and high dynamic – a lot of value for the money spent extra. It has also initiated competition among and creative unrest within universities.


Q. What are the criteria for selecting the research projects?

A. It was an open competition, specific disciplines and research topics were not pre-defined The assessment of Institutional Strategies considered the current research strengths of the university in scientific and academic fields, its structural conditions for top-level research, and the universities’ ability to demonstrate an increase in quality or consistently high quality.


Q. How different is this research funding initiative?

A. It was conducted as an academic-driven procedure. More than 800 scientists and scholars were involved in all funding lines (third call). So it is a program launched by the government, but conducted by scientists and scholars forming the majority within the Grants Committee; politicians were involved only in final decision-making. 


Q. What can Indian universities learn from German counterparts?

A. Each country must choose a strategy that is most suitable for it. Some selected general aspects could be clarifying the reasoning behind the program and strict commitment on quality and performance awareness. There should be a strict recruiting policy with respect to reviewers (avoiding conflicts of interests) and internationally renowned reviewers coupled with capability to sustain the made efforts over time. There should be transparent evaluation, procedure and criteria along with appropriate monitoring. 


(Dr. Sabine Behrenbeckis Head of Department Higher EducationAnd Progamme Director Excellence Initiative German Council for Science and Humanities)

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