The future of universities

By Dominic Mahon

Dominic Mahon teaches at a private university in Turkey. Previously he has taught academic literacies at universities in the UK and Vietnam.

What will your university look like in 20 years? The chances are that it will be radically different to the institution of today or perhaps it will not even exist at all. The environment of higher education is changing. Student profiles are changing.  The future of the university is up for grabs.

Until quite recently universities principally served the state in which they were established. Students from that state went to those universities then went on to work in the economy of that same state. As the world of business has crossed national boundaries at an accelerated rate in the last 40 years (the number of transnational corporations grew from 7000 in 1970 to 38000 by 2000) so too are universities evolving from national into transnational institutions.  The number of universities with International Branch Campuses (like RMIT Vietnam) grew from 24 in 2002 to 160 in 2009. Furthermore, the different national education systems are forming closer ties. For example, Keele, a university based in the UK, has recently joined the US higher education admissions system.

This growth in international education is of course fuelled by demand. Student numbers are growing. UNESCO describes the process as massification, with growth in the age cohort in Higher Education internationally from 19% in 2000 to 26% in 2007. In 2009 there were more than 2.5 million students living outside their home countries with predictions indicating that that number will rise to 20 million by 2020.

However, a key element in this growth is money. Universities are increasingly looking to court international students in order to bring in greater revenue. This is understandable given the current climate in education. In the UK for example, applications from home students are down because of newly increased fees. This reduction in numbers is hitting some universities more than others and will result in the short term in the closure of unpopular courses but ultimately the closure of unpopular universities will also most likely occur.

While it is certainly true that corporations went down the path of becoming transnational before universities, the nature of the process is not the same for universities.  Corporations exist to create profit for their shareholders and this mandate doesn’t change with the movement across borders. It might be said that universities are in the business of education and that this shouldn’t change with expansion, but the story isn’t so simple. What is the education one gets from a university? Is it content knowledge? Skills? Values?  Most people would say that it is all of the above. However, if it is all of these things, how are they weighted and assessed? In terms of expansion, the easiest thing for universities to do would be to abandon values and focus on the content and skills. These values are typically based on the values of the nations the institutions originate from and may no longer be internationally relevant. But this would be unfortunate as it would focus conceptions of good education purely on economic development.

The current global financial crisis is evidence of the failure of neo liberal economic policies and unregulated markets. The economic growth experienced in the last decade has been unequally distributed, a fact born out by the contemporary 1% movement with its worldwide protests against inequality. It is increasingly clear that money is the greatest barrier to an equal flow of students around the world. UNESCO  has warned that if current trends in the internationalization of education continue there would result an even greater gap between the world’s haves and have nots. There is no reason to assume that a focus on economic development would result in anything other than a crisis in higher education and a perpetuation of inequality in society.

Of course, instead of a purely economic mandate, universities could take advantage of this expansion to promote social justice internationally. But how can universities do this? Graduate attributes serve as an indicator of the skills and capabilities that graduates of universities are supposed to have acquired as part of their study. These attributes typically include a set of transferable skills and a set of values. As noted above, these national values may not be relevant internationally.  However, by taking notions of social justice as a guide, universities could formulate values with an international relevance.

So universities need to plan carefully, not just on the basis of student numbers and profits, but also in terms of the values a degree from their institution encourages. In this way, they can be a force for international social justice and promoters of a fairer international society. If not, they run the risk of becoming merely the apprenticeship academies for transnational corporations.

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2 responses to “The future of universities”

  1. huynhngoct says :

    “Of course, instead of a purely economic mandate, universities could take advantage of this expansion to promote social justice internationally.”

    This is an interesting point – May I ask if a University’s sole focus / program was on the business and technology (as per meeting the workforce requirement for emerging countries) while neglecting humanity’s subject – can it perform what you have written above about social justice?

    • Dominic Mahon says :

      I would say yes, and in any case, I don’t think having a class on values as it were, would make sense. Rather, I believe these things are fostered by the environment in the classroom and the university at large. Openness, critical thinking, debate, the freedom to express ideas and so on can come about as a result of studying any subject.

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