The global spread of national universities: modern state formation and geopolitical anxieties in higher education policy

Set against similar notions such as the flagship, public, and state university, the national university could be distinguished by an imaginary located below the global but above the local. Institutions such as the Australian National University and the National University of Singapore exemplify such a category. How and why this distinct institutional form spread globally, however, remain open questions. The paper proceeds in two steps to explore answers to these: First, using historical country and institutional data on 197 countries, de jure national universities are identified by privileging their strongest official or legal connection between the organisation and its containing nation-state. Data was sourced from the World Higher Education Dataset collaboratively produced by the International Association of Universities (IAU) and UNESCO. Second, using the comparative-historical sequential method, the study then proceeds to analyse establishments of de jure national universities with relation to the year of modern independence of states. The historical sequences were laid out on a comparative global scale to infer commonalities and factors across country cases. Secondary data variables analysed include a consideration of colonisation background, the presence of secularisation especially with regard to previous institutional establishments, the institutional research position within the national higher education system, and whether the university is located in the political capital as a proxy indicating its role on the national level. Results show that 129 countries established a national university after modern independence with most colonising powers never have established one. Their timing and distribution point to elite anxieties from both internal stability and international competition as primary motivations.

The paper further theorises that the creation of national universities figures within three centripetal tendencies of modern state formation: (1) Centralisation in terms of geographical scope points to bureaucracies driven by concentration, efficiency, and coordination; (2) Politicisation in terms of economic distribution intersects with societal conflict over various symbolic and tangible resources; And (3) homogenisation in terms of reproducing a single country-level identity could be extended into skills and other characteristics within its population. Alongside the Humboldtian Anglo-Saxon model and the specialist Napoleonic tradition, the national university presents an additional trajectory for our idea of the university in the early modern period. Such a trajectory is characterised to be a particular peripheral model stimulated by wider industrialisation and imperial decline. While the existence of national-level identities and central bureaucracies predate some of these institutions, these findings do not support the dominant narrative of national universities acting as facilitating mechanisms for colonial economic extraction. Rather, borne out of indigenous agency and sovereignty, it is likely the case that national universities are key institutions in modern state formation as responses towards internal stability and geopolitical competition.