A Look into a Possible Future: A Global Scenario for Higher Education Systems

DOUGLASS, John (2007)

All over the world, those who shape and fund higher education systems are engaged in a dramatic period of reform. Their interests have converted higher education into a priority sector within society, relevant for the productive sector and capable of leading the economic, social and human development of their respective societies. This constant search of identity leads to prospective exercises, which not always create similar scenarios. In this article, John A. Douglass, senior research fellow of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California-Berkeley, and author of the new book, The Conditions for Admission, offers us his own vision about this development, with an enriching and maybe provocative positioning. Identifying elements of a global higher education scenario might allow considering actions, which open up alternative visions of the future. Higher education systems could find other directions into which to evolve. Emphasizing even more the importance to contribute to human and social development, they might well opt for a collaborative approach rather than a competitive one. 

How do economists and historians explain long-term economic growth of nations, and their comparable competitive position? A consensus has emerged: one major factor is not just overall rates of educational attainment, but the vibrancy and the maturity of their public and private higher education institutions.

As the first nation to pioneer the idea of mass higher education, the United States has essentially provided the proving ground for the simple idea that the talent, training, and creativity of its citizens is as important a factor for generating economic prosperity as a nation’s natural resources, or its strategic geographic location, or its military, political, or cultural influence.
So it is not a big leap to simply state that, in the modern world, the educational attainment of a population, and increasingly the growth in postsecondary education access, are factors that, more than ever, will determine the fate of nations. This widely understood fact is causing a worldwide effort to reform and reshape higher education systems.
One result is that the command economy approaches to creating and regulating mass higher education in many parts of the world are withering. What is emerging is what I have called a “Structured Opportunity Market” (SOM) in higher education—essentially, a convergence, in some form, in the effort of nation-states to create a more lightly regulated and more flexible network of public higher education institutions.
The components of a Structured Opportunity Market is not so much a reality in much of the world, but a powerful model that is slowly emerging, shaped by universal ideas on what works most effectively in the pursuit of both broad access and high quality and productive universities and colleges. Reforms by governments and educational institutions adhere to local political and social cultures, but they are increasingly informed and shaped by powerful ideas on the successes, and failures, of other nations or by institutions such as MIT or Berkeley, or California’s pioneering idea of the community college.
Some have called this the “Americanization” of higher education, in part because of the iconic and, dare I say, somewhat romanticized advantages of the US model. But I would argue that that characterization is a misnomer, in large part because some of the most dramatic higher education reforms are occurring in other parts of the world, providing the new models in key areas such as access and financing. What is emerging is a much more dynamic and global policy-transfer environment.
The Structure Opportunity Market is my way of attempting to capture some of the seemingly universal aspects of this process of quasi-convergence in national approaches to higher education – always mindful that similar broad approaches will not result in a single international model. Political, culture and socio-economic factors, along with the legacy of past institution building, are too powerful and important for that. At the same time, political and economically unstable parts of the world will lag considerably, seemingly left out of the globalization process and, indeed, sometimes vehemently opposed to its political and cultural intrusions.
With those caveats in mind, what I will say is that institutions and developed and developing nations, and, in some cases, supranational entities such as the European Union, will increasingly move to most if not all of the components of the Structure Opportunity Market. Those that don’t will be compelled to offer in both domestic and international forums a rational reason why they are not adopting some aspects of the model.
In 15 years (2022) or before, I predict that most national systems will include most of the SOM characteristics outlined below – or will articulate why they are the exception to an emerging rule. It is a look into the future that, admittedly, is already partially fulfilled in many parts of the world, but certainly not all. It is also a scenario in which some policy reforms that where once thought impossible in some countries, like charging fees, will become acceptable.
a. Shaping the Higher Education Market
What is emerging is a decidedly more consumer driven approach to enrollment management, but with various budget and structural limits, usually including,
- Establishment or expansion of an Open Access provider, usually relatively new institutions intended to bridge a common gap in most countries between secondary schooling and sometimes highly selective and elite university sectors.
- Fostering greater Mission Differentiation among existing and future higher education institutions. Market and government induced Mission Differentiation, in turn,
- Helps to match student skills and interests to academic programs.
- Helps focus institutions on their role in a larger system of higher education – in theory – and a recognition that not all universities can or should be full-fledged comprehensive research institutions.
- Mission differentiation, along with the transfer/matriculation function (see below), helps to rationalize the investment in highly selective public universities – that they are part of a logical larger and coherent mass higher education system.
- Providing significant Institutional Autonomy for public higher education institutions to manage academic and financial affairs, and to determine which ways to best interact with society and the private sector will likely prove a deciding factor in which nation-states build universities of the highest quality.
- Allowing for a well regulated non-profit and a for-profit Private Sector. Nation’s without quality non-profit and for-profit institution suggest they suffer from a lack of both flexibility and an understanding of the value of an array of higher education providers. On the other hand, nation-states that have a proliferation of for-profit higher education institutions generally indicate a lack of significant efforts to build their public mass higher education systems.
- Supporting Institutional and Regional Experimentation is also a vital component for nation-states.
- Particularly at highly selective public universities, there is a growing effort at some form of Affirmative Action, with the purpose of accounting for socio-economic and racial factors in admissions, and expanding the number of disadvantaged and minority students.
- Most nation-state efforts to build the vibrancy of their higher education systems will include a concerted role to Enroll International Students and seek creative ways to retain the best and brightest in their own national economies after graduation.
b. Curricular Reform
The academic and social abilities of students vary greatly. This requires different types of institutions and, to avoid socio-economic tracking, some curricular link that can help them come in and out of a higher education system, depending on their maturation and their aspirations. In part of these reasons, one sees,
- Efforts at some form of Degree Compatibility, a la the Bologna process. Different national, and even institutional, approaches to the time to degree, and the meaning of a degree, are giving way to some form of international standardization.
- The ability for students to Bank Credits. Degree compatibility and banking credits, along with mission differentiation, provide for.
- Emerging schemes for a Transfer/Matriculation Function among different types of institutions (typically a 2-year program to a 3 or 4-year university, but not exclusively).
- The revisiting of the curriculum and education program leading to a degree, including some major initiatives to provide General Education even in 3-year undergraduate programs focused on a specific field.
c. Higher Education Funding and Access
Creativity in the funding of higher education is extremely important and is, in fact, perhaps a determiner of the future vibrancy and efficiency of mass higher education systems, and all forms of postsecondary institutions.
- Seeking a greater Diversity of Funding Sources, and not simply relying on government to provide the vast majority of funds, as in the initial era of building most mass higher education systems, is already widely understood as a major new development vital for most higher education institutions – and in particular research universities.
- Most nation-states will or are pursuing a Moderate Fee and High Financial Aid Model, with the fundamental concept that tuition and various fees form a means for income redistribution and supporting lower income students and others from disadvantaged backgrounds. Most institutions will charge students and their families, represent between 10 to 30 percent (or higher) of an institution’s total revenues. Discussion and analysis of the introduction of fees, or their expansion, should always be accompanied by their potential use to substantially defray costs for underprivileged students and other targeted populations.
- Finally, a key component for pursuing a greater diversity of funding sources, and an infusion of funds for enrollment and program growth, are more liberal Tax Policies that Benefit Students and Higher Education Institutions. Individual and corporate tax credits for funding research activities and capital construction, and for endowments, will become increasingly a part of an expanded portfolio of funding sources for institutions.
This is not a statement of what should be, but what l will likely be. Most governments in developed and increasingly in developing economies seem to be moving toward most of these elements of this Structured Opportunity Market, or at least they are a topic of discussion, in the course of their stated commitment to broad access and aggressively pushing higher education demand. But why?
Ultimately, the reasons transcend immediate or even long-term job-market needs or the recognition that most workers will change jobs numerous times in the course of their working lives, often with the need for retraining under the rubric of lifelong learning. The primary reason is the desire to promote a culture of aspiration, which in turn influences socioeconomic mobility and creates a more talented and entrepreneurial population, the hope for a more prosperous society, and, ultimately, global competitiveness.
There is another reason. Many components of the Structured Opportunity Market relate to a concerted effort to not only generate native talent, but to retain high quality students who, increasingly, have international options and recognize quality institutions as having high levels of autonomy and academic freedom, and often greater financial resources and commonalities with international “brand name” universities. Nation-states that do not have some grouping of institutions with these characteristics will lose the best and the brightest.

At the same time, international talent, both in terms of students and faculty, will increasingly evaluate the vibrancy of not only selective research universities, but also the quality of national systems of higher education, as important in their decision where to go. All of these factors, and the constant interest in the higher education reforms of competitors, has led to, rightly or wrongly, a global discussion on what works best.

About the author

John Aubrey Douglass, Senior Research Fellow – Public Policy and Higher Education
Center for Studies in Higher Education
University of California - Berkeley

John Douglass is a Senior Research Fellow whose current research interests are focused on the student experience in research universities, the role of universities in economic development, science policy as a component of national and multinational economic policy, the evolving role of mass higher education in society, and the influence of globalization.
He has served as the deputy director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education from 1999 to 2002 and is the editor of the Center's Research and Occasional Papers Series.

Monday, December 17, 2007


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