If you read the pages of political and business magazines these days, then sooner or later you’ll come across an article on higher education that will, almost certainly, suggest that the traditional university model across the developed world is falling apart: buildings, infrastructure and equipment are becoming too expensive; people with great academic potential are being lured away to industry; governments are interfering too much and paying too little; students cannot afford the cost of a university degree; disruptive technologies are creating havoc amongst the old institutions; and so on. Some add that this toxic cocktail of problems will cause many universities to go bankrupt.
The latter prediction one can justifiably take with a grain of salt. For the past decade or so the demise of institutions has been predicted again and again, but none of any significance has in fact collapsed. Some no doubt are living precariously, but they are all still there. Many universities have learned to do what business always does – to respond to financial challenges by cutting costs suddenly and dramatically; redundancies are not so rare now in this sector. But the institutions survive.
And yet there is change in the air. New online courses (including MOOCs) create new learning environments and outcomes (the latter including alarmingly high drop-out rates). Interaction with external partners has become the norm for almost everyone. Research is now often aligned with the drive for national technological innovation.
If we are looking for new models for universities, we need to find an agreed framework for evaluating these. Such a framework must address the two most important questions for assessing higher education: (1) what pedagogical aims are we pursuing? – and (2) what impact do we want scholarship and research to have? Too often I find people discussion higher education innovation in terms of capacity (‘we are doing this because we can do it’) rather than in terms of principle (‘we are doing this because we should do it’).
If universities do go bankrupt, I suspect it is because we are no longer clear about what higher education is for. There is of course more than one good model. But let us at least be clear about what these models are, and why they are desirable.