Let a thousand academic flowers bloom

The ongoing debate about whether there is need for a new university in Cluj that would roughly correspond to the former Bolyai University should consider what we know about higher education systems that work pretty well. Here are, for example, some recommendations from The Economist:

As it happens, we already possess a successful model of how to organise higher education: America’s. That country has almost a monopoly on the world’s best universities (see table 1), but also provides access to higher education for the bulk of those who deserve it. The success of American higher education is not just a result of money (though that helps); it is the result of organisation. American universities are much less dependent on the state than are their competitors abroad. They derive their income from a wide variety of sources, from fee-paying students to nostalgic alumni, from hard-headed businessmen to generous philanthropists. And they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from Princeton and Yale to Kalamazoo community college.

This survey will offer two pieces of advice for countries that are trying to create successful higher-education systems, be they newcomers such as India and China or failed old hands such as Germany and Italy. First: diversify your sources of income. The bargain with the state has turned out to be a pact with the devil. Second: let a thousand academic flowers bloom. Universities, including for-profit ones, should have to compete for customers. A sophisticated economy needs a wide variety of universities pursuing a wide variety of missions. These two principles reinforce each other: the more that the state’s role contracts, the more educational variety will flourish.

I especially like that “a sophisticated economy needs a wide variety of universities pursuing a wide variety of missions”. Contrast that with what is going on in Romania. Cluj, the most important cultural center in Transylvania, is almost entirely dominated by a single but huge academic institution, that is, Babes-Bolyai University. There are about 45,500 students at UBB, and it is essentially the only institution in Transylvania that has some real scientific output (that is, publications in ISI journals). Not a lot of scientific output, taking into account the number of faculty, but certainly light-years ahead of any other place pretending to produce science.

So wouldn’t it make sense to diversify a bit the academic picture and re-create an institution that already has some respectable history? The new Bolyai University would not be an institution against the present-day UBB; and it clearly should not be solely focused on local and Hungarian issues. Ideally, it would result in a healthy competition, and it would give a chance to the Hungarian community in Transylvania to have a real center of excellence in research and higher education.

That would be the real multiculturalism. A relatively small but quality-driven institution of higher education is better than a giant degree-machine whose leaders seem to think that just pointing out how many thousands of students study in how many different languages shows how good the institution is. The best universities in the world are famous not for the sheer numbers of their students or faculty, and the number of languages that are used on campus, but for the quality and impact of research and teaching. And by that standard, I am sorry to say, Babes-Bolyai has a long way to go.

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