It has been said before in this blog, but this is a time of peculiar uncertainty, and therefore unpredictability, in higher education. In some systems, such as the English one, there appears to be a drift towards a largely private system – mostly not-for-profit, but with some for-profit institutions participating – from which the state has largely disengaged itself, except for a regulatory role. Other systems (like most European ones, and indeed Scotland) rely heavily on the taxpayer as the sole or main funder; but as public money comes under pressure, and the state has more direct requests of higher education notwithstanding the withdrawal of funding support, the robustness of this model becomes more questionable.
What governments and other stakeholders (including students) expect of higher education is also not always clear; but predominantly expectations appear to focus on the practical services that universities can provide to society. A recent report published by Ireland’s Higher Education Authority summarised the higher education mission as follows:
‘A strongly performing education system means that employment opportunities are maximised for individuals and communities; doing business is attractive for companies of all types, and there is a strong basis for a progressive, prosperous economy and society. Higher education provides the pipeline of highly-skilled graduates in an economy; it offers a dynamic research and development function to support industrial innovation and expansion; and it is a primary resource for vital re-skilling and up-skilling of the workforce.’
In the meantime a senior researcher in an American think tank, Kevin Carey, has suggested that many higher education institutions may not be able to adapt and survive in the changing landscape. He said this of today’s universities:
‘Historically, they have been among the most resilient of all human institutions. Many have troves of educational resources that can be used to adapt and thrive in the coming transition to technology-enabled education. Some will manage that journey successfully, others won’t. I do believe that the number of [universities] that go under will be much larger over the next 30 years than in the previous 30, and that those that survive will need to change their organizational models fundamentally.
The answer to all of this is of course that there is no one answer. There has for some time not been a single model for universities, and today’s changes in technology, demography and pedagogy will produce more variety rather than uniformity. This is a good thing, provided that the various models in play can be understood by and justified before the general public and its representatives. In this setting, universities themselves need to become less opportunistic and more principled, setting out clearly what their mission is and how this can support society’s needs, and then acting in line with that mission.
Today’s greater levels of scepticism surrounding higher education require a much better communication by universities of what they are all about: not what all of them are all about, but what they mean to do individually or in groups. In reality, we no longer have one singly higher education system; we have several. It would be a step forward to recognise that publicly.