Paradigm Shift in Support for Mass Higher Education? Considering the Policy Trade-Offs
Posted: 22 Feb 2013
Date Written: February 22, 2013
Over the last decades, access to higher education has expanded from being a privilege of birth or talent or both (elite phase) to a right for those with certain qualifications (mass phase) to being an obligation for the vast majority of society and occupations (universal). However, the adjustment phase of the global economic crisis is putting great pressure on higher education to demonstrate greater relevance to, and better value for, individuals and society. The continuing shift to the knowledge-based economy, and the rising demand for and costs of higher education, are occurring at the same time that many governments face serious financial strain – with knock-on effects on higher education budgets.
Many of these challenges were manifest decades ago; but the confluence of factors associated with the new economic reality has intensified their impact. Many people argue that the modern university has remained largely unchanged for 1000 years. Are recent developments a sign of a profound paradigm shift in our model for publicly-funded mass higher education or simply a transitory moment?
While each country faces particular and often unique challenges, there are some common factors –which have become more acute since 2008. There are three big challenges:
1) Building (and maintaining) global competitiveness. The global economic crisis has emphasized (again) the importance of knowledge-intensive production as source of competitive advantage. Some governments are investing heavily or at least retaining their level of investment (often as part of stimulus) in higher education and R&D while others face serious financial strain. As governments seek to enhance their capacity/capability across society, others are moving away from the principles of egalitarianism to create at least one world-class university. Yet, the costs required exceed many national budgets, and on a zero sum basis, concentrating resources in this way is leading to growing stratification between elite and mass higher education.
2) Meeting the Demand for Higher Education. OECD, EU, UNESCO, WB studies repeatedly show strong correlation between educational attainment and social and economic advantages for individuals and society; this is especially critical as governments seek pathways for economic recovery. As the demand for higher education intensifies, the costs are rising, and public and private debt is reaching unsustainable levels in many countries. The UN’s lowest estimate expects additional 117m people on Earth by 2050. To meet this demand, requires at least “one sizeable new university to open every week” over next decades. Yet, it is increasingly evident that no government can/will be able to afford to fund all the higher education that its citizens demands or society requires.
3) Assuring Quality and Excellence: Global competition has placed more and more emphasis on the quality of the higher education system/institutions as a key determinant of reputation and status, and a beacon for mobile investment and talent. Governments and the public are also looking for verifiable and measurable evidence of value-for-money and return-on-investment – and greater evidence of impact and benefit. Students, as consumers, are questioning the value-for-money of their study programme relative to the tuition fee or institution’s status and reputation, and tax-payers want more evidence of the contribution to society-as-a-whole. This explains why global (and national) rankings have assumed such significance, at a geo-political level, in recent years. There has been a proliferation of metrics, and performance-based funding arrangements. Yet, many of these solutions have been promoted in the widespread (yet largely unexamined) belief that they (also) promote quality improvement.
These developments are producing some common trends and profound shifts in our model/support for mass publicly-funded higher education. Despite commitments to/for institutional autonomy, given the importance of higher education for economic growth and recovery and, there is increasing evidence of greater government steerage of both the higher education and research system. In some countries, there is growing emphasis on higher education as an arm of industrial/economic policy rather than its attributes for human capital development. Because of the link between excellence and national competitiveness, QA processes (including accreditation) are becoming increasingly government-driven rather than institutional-led. The world-class research intensive university – derived from global rankings – has become the panacea for success. There is increasing focus on the recruitment of talented high achievers. To cover the costs, there is, of necessity, a shift towards greater cost-sharing and using the for-profit sector to absorb rising demand and drive efficiencies. A widening gap in “world-classness” is becoming evident.
As a result, many governments are making profound changes to their higher education and research systems resulting in policy trade-offs and contradictions:
• Pursuing a resource-intensive “world class university” strategy at the same time public budgets and affordability declining; • Concentrating excellence in a hand-full of universities at the same time as need to enhance human capital development and regional capability; • Differentiating between teaching & research missions at the same time evidence supports need for greater transversal/critical skills via enhanced integration between teaching & research; • Rewarding traditional academic outputs (via rankings or other processes) at the same time there is a need to value civic and social responsibility; • Attracting talent from abroad while failing to nurture talent at home. This paper reviews some of the key challenges facing higher education, and hypothesizes some possible scenarios.
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