Top universities: new players in the global game of power?

Photo Cédric Denis-Rémis & Armand Hatchuel / Deputy Director of Mines ParisTech (PSL Université Paris) & Professor at Mines Paristech, Chair of Design Theory and Methodes for Innovation / February 15th, 2017

The term university covers a wide range of institutions. In time, this diversity could narrow down to two main types of universities: a local model, with institutes and Bachelor degrees related to regional development; a global model, including prototypes such as Harvard or Oxford, and emerging players in Europe or China. These world-class universities can be seen as a new type of universal power.

In world history, churches, governments and, more recently, large companies, emerged as universal powers. Most of times, it came with major conflicts: during the European Middle Ages, the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire clashed over the control of political power and, more broadly, the ability to issue and impose legal and cultural norms.

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia was a decisive moment in which governments asserted themselves as the virtually exclusive holders of power. But they were quickly followed by large companies, in the wake of industrial revolutions.

The consolidation of German chemistry with the creation of IG Farben in 1925, could be considered as a symbolic moment. Ford, General Motors, United Fruits… now Google, Walmart and Alibaba are institutions capable of organizing large parts of social life. But their definition goes beyond their simple description. Although they would certainly deny it, these companies have a form of power that, in some ways, is comparable to that of governments. In an area such as research, which shapes our future, the R&D budget of Apple is over 8 billion dollars, an amount that passes most nations’ public spending in research.

Very large global companies exercise considerable normative power, and they mobilize that power to shape and define large parts of our social life, both present and future. It is now a mundane view. But less mundane is the need to recognize the unexpected arrival of new players in this great game of global power: the world’s leading universities.

If we were to choose a symbolic date for their emergence, one could evoke 2003 and the publication of the first Shanghai ranking. We know the implications of this ranking in the deep reconfiguration, all over the world, of the institutions of higher education. Rankings (whether Shanghai or the Times Higher Education) have reinforced the global supremacy of Harvard, the MIT and their likes. They have also exacerbated competition between institutions and in doing so, contributed to the emergence of new players inspired by the success of these American giants. The implications of this game of competition and imitation are far reaching. It accelerates the formation of world-class institutions. Beyond size, it also consolidates a new concept of large university, one that wishes and has to play a part in building a new, global magisterium.

Global university as a universal power
University has been dealing with universality since its inception. In the 13th Century, the term universitas simply refered to a corporation or guild. But since early on, medieval universities were defined by their ambition to integrate all fields of knowledge. Today, global universities have the same universalist vocation. Beyond its graduating activities, the university also exerts a power of knowledge, one that determines global development, ethics and norms. Furthermore, it enjoys an increasingly independent autonomous political power.

This universal power results directly from the global dimension now assigned to the traditional missions of the most ambitious universities. For instance, on a global scale, the task of transmitting knowledge and values is now played by MOOCs. Major universities show their global standing by fostering excellence across the entire range of knowledge: arts, sciences, sciences of action, religion, social and political sciences. They promote the visibility of their research as a showcase to their input on the creation of new sciences and universal knowledge. By being virtually the only institutions in a position to attract world-class researchers and offering them satisfactory conditions (retribution, prestige, quality of equipment and services, level of students), they set the bar to a level that smaller institutions have almost no chance of reaching.

It should be noted that this power of knowledge combines with an ethical and normative power with an equally universal ambition. Major universities aim to shape the standards that will guide the actions of people and organizations. This starts with publication, distribution and labeling of works that convey a structuring value, able to configure the disciplines and fields of research, and hence, the great descriptive systems of human activity. This ambition involves the recruitment of the most renowned and influential professors, but it also relies, perhaps less visibly, on the creation of communities capable of carrying these norms. In this regard, awarding diplomas or other certifications are main vectors in the dissemination of these norms and the monitoring of value.

Attracting the best students in the world, forming the global elites, is now at the heart of the project of all major institutions. This doesn’t preclude enhancing local presence. But the ambition is clearly global. Oxford’s 2013-2018 Strategic Plan, for instance, embodies the objective to “benefit society on a national and global scale.” This generous vision, at the service of all humanity, will be achieved through the dissemination of “ideas, skills and expertise of Oxford.” The overall mission assigns a universal value to Oxford’s knowledge and expertise.

As powers of knowledge, as well as ethical and normative powers, world-class universities emerge as an increasingly independent and autonomous political power. They rely on the collective nature of academic power, on the relationships with major stakeholders (trusts and foundations, governments, regions, firms). They also exert their influence by building a global community of life-long members – a loyal, active and influential global community. Harvard proudly boasts “360,000 alumni around the world.” Its president, historian Drew Faust, states that “the creation of a vibrant and tolerant community is fundamental to the university and may even be its raison d’être.


Economic power is another prominent feature of most large institutions. These have taken strong positions on the world market of education while diversifying their sources of income (fundraising, intellectual property, services, activities and consulting, funding of chairs by industrial partners, etc.). Their wealth, financial independence and ability to monetize their value is part of their economic power. This power is not only aimed at defending the institution’s independence. It also plays an active role, by prescribing policies, disseminating methods through alumni who hold strategic positions. Major universities drive the development of civilization, territories, nations, and large companies.

Outside the tutelage of governments, major universities exert a form of corporatist self-regulation: they create codes, modes of organization and governance models that regulate their own activities. The Shanghai ranking itself was created by a university and stands as the most visible expression of this trend – as well as its accelerator. By evidencing the success of the most powerful and independent universities, it leads others to adopt their model.

The great game
By establishing themselves as increasingly global and universal centers of power, major universities fall inside a great game in which they not only compete with one another but also with other types of powers. Especially with governments, which in Asia or Europe have done whatever they could to monitor their universities within the frame of national policies. With the widespread adoption of international standards by universities, governments have somehow acknowledged the limits of this interventionist approach. Large universities, just like multinational companies, can now build successful alliances with governments they are interested in.

Universities place their “troops” everywhere, just like large companies with their subsidiaries and governments with their diplomatic representations. The collective power of the alumni of large universities, their ability to put norms and values into practice, to identify themselves as members of a community, should be taken seriously. In its own way, it reminds of the Catholic Church in the past. “The Pope! How many divisions does he have?” allegedly asked Stalin to Churchill, rather sarcastically. What a mistake! One cannot underestimate the power of churches and the tremendous influence of their communities. And all communities within major universities share the same ambition proclaimed by their alma mater: to count among those who create worlds. Or, at the very least, among those who govern countries (besides 27 British Prime Ministers, Oxford is proud to have formed 30 “modern world leaders,” including Bill Clinton, Aung Sai Suu Kyi and Indira Gandhi)… or manage large companies. In the great game of competing powers, universities are one step ahead: they don’t exactly decide what other powers shall do, but they shape worldviews that guide them. For example, it is observed directly in the construction of an economic knowledge that has become the main standard of both economics and major global financial institutions.

This is why the university’s power cannot be reduced to mere academic outreach, a soft power combining both influence and seduction. Major universities mobilize communities that will hold a position of leadership, create and disseminate standards, define the categories that will shape the world.

The declaration of principle of the University of California at Berkeley must be taken seriously: “Berkeley is a place where the brightest minds from across the globe come together to explore, ask questions and improve the world.” Their ambition is to change the world and to do so by producing knowledge and standards. MOOCs are involved in this project by disseminating the categories and modes of thinking that shape human activity. MOOCs accelerate the dissemination of knowledge and contribute to the implementation of action plans and, ultimately, of standards. Major universities work actively at shaping and reconfiguring our ways of thinking and of doing things. By doing so, they give their knowledge an unparalleled normative power. This imperial vocation perpetuates a very old tradition: the Roman empire, for example, not only developed its power with armies, but also with lawyers and engineers… They disseminated the standards of representation and action that conveyed the worldview of Rome.

The world domination of universities and its dangers
The knowledge and standards disseminated by the world’s leading universities have a scientific, utilitarian and emotional value. Universities assert themselves by their effectiveness to create a knowledge that is both validated and recognized. We are also influenced by their prestige: they make us dream and are shrouded with strong legitimacy. Thus, major universities emerge as spiritual powers that, in certain areas (culture, science, arts, management, economics), exert hegemonic power.

In a historical perspective, this dynamic is not unlike that of religious institutions. Indeed, these were the first organizations to fully display this hegemonic ambition. Despite the increasing importance of political institutions, they have always strived to keep a firm grip over political structures, by dubbing of kings, controlling laws, knowledge, and more broadly, the development of the normative framework that sustains political action. Major universities also exert a normative spiritual power, in their own way: they promote, disseminate or impose values and thinking categories, on topics as diverse as economics (with mainstream economics), management, environment, culture (with cultural studies) or society (with gender studies and political correctness), from campuses. They could also convey obscurantist and anti-humanist theories if new coalitions with countries, religious movements, or even some companies, were to emerge.

Interestingly, the medieval university – one of the references that foreshadows global universities – was built not only against, but also as an offshoot of the church. In medieval Christianity, the university was a dissident branch of the church. Stemming from the church, the university conquered its own autonomy and absorbed the knowledge and normative power of its former model. Retroactively, it also exerted a strong influence on the church. Today, global universities are world powers that can “absorb” churches, by controlling theological faculties.

This perspective, with the emergence of a normative spiritual power, can help us understand the academic discourse addressed ex cathedra. Today, the university produces both a scientific discourse that is subject to tight peer control, exposure of evidence, public debates; and a normative discourse proceeding from a rhetoric of truth, with implicit categories of good and evil that are reminiscent of religious institutions.

Let’s not bury our heads in the sand: the developments we are trying to understand, which, in many ways, obey a positive and natural evolution, also entail some threats.

In particular, the huge economic and political issues and the concentration of competition in a global academic oligopoly could undermine both ethics and values within the most powerful universities. Power, like money, involves corruption. By approaching power, the academic world will not escape corruption.

And with the race to global scale and power, genuine academic wars could occur. Competition becomes war where no holds are barred. Will science meet a similar fate? Today, everyone expects the appointment of Nobel Prize with apprehension, because of its impact on their relative strength.

The loss of autonomy of governments – and ultimately, of the people – in the control of knowledge and values, economic choices or development and in the recruitment of elites, should also be noted. Without prejudice to the survival of a certain pluralism, particularly in the competition between academic giants, the academic normative and prescriptive power will prevail and condition an increasing number of public choices – not necessarily in favor of the public.

As for threats, we must also worry about the double penalty suffered by small countries whose universities are “killed” by the rankings – the best researchers, teachers and students will always prefer giants. Money will follow the same path, including public money: investments in local universities will be less and less profitable, less and less relevant, except in the case of hyper-specialization, with, in the case of research, global niche strategies at the expense of useful work for national development.

However, these potentially negative consequences can be offset by the positive developments induced by the emergence and consolidation of the academic power: a peaceful regulation of global balance, a common training of the world elites, a real ability to invest or direct investments in promising innovations for progress and economic growth.

Like any power, the legitimacy of tomorrow’s great universities will be questioned. There are already being challenged as institutions exclusively reserved to economic elites, plagued by social reproduction, indebting their students for life. But the response is proportionate to the criticism: major universities also stand as a social model, redistributing wealth to the less fortunate (free tuition fees and scholarships). And the emergence of MOOCs brings gratuity to all students.

Powers emerge by their ability to solve the problems they themselves create. To become an empire, Rome had to devise the right political and administrative institutions. If they keep growing, the world’s leading universities will also focus criticism and create new problems. They need to prepare, anticipate and recognize the dangers of a hegemonic position. Power comes with responsibilities.

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