The Complex Roles Of Universities In The Period Of Globalization – Altbach – Part 2

Continuing from my previous post, Altbach deals with the University as a focus of the international community. We host other people, share interests, cross-populate each other with PhD students and professors – sometimes it’s a wonder that we don’t get spontaneous germination of new Universities just from all of the swapping! Because of our mission, we tend to have a much greater ability to look, think and act on the international level. This is an interesting contrast to the role of the Uni as a national stabiliser, as the more one travels and looks outward, the more one realises that your country is just one of many. I travel a fair bit for work and I can tell you that, right now, I haven’t run across a single issue that is not being felt by at least two (or more) Universities at an equal level of pain, yet most people who don’t travel or share their world view feel isolated and that “no one else would understand.” The realisation that all countries are really very similar (yes, with one or two exceptions) and that Unis are the same all over the world sets the academic even further away from the people outside and again increases the obligation to communicate with people outside of academia. Hoarding knowledge or sneering at the uninformed do not come with the territory – Universities have traditionally been the centres of connectivity, even before the internet, and now that most Unis end up being the default Internet distribution point in many regions, this is becoming even more important.

This ties in with the next topic that Altbach mentions, our role in social mobility. Education transforms people. While you have to the son of the King to (most likely) become King, anyone can become an engineer (with a few caveats, to keep my colleagues in Eng happy!) with access to education. Expanding Universities from a small and elite focussed approach to a larger scale, massified, model has brought access and equity to a much larger group of people. This is not a given, of course, as the first-in-family do face a lot of challenges but, where the right attention is given to support and scholarships, great things can be achieved.

We are also engines for economic development, in that our knowledge can be commercialised, spun-off, licensed and re-used, through adjacent Science and Technology Parks or through relationships with industry. There are entire twins in the US that would shrivel up overnight without their co-located University. Academic research is still a key driver in innovation both directly and indirectly, through the production of research staff who then go to corporate research facilities.

But a number of these are fairly recent developments. International focus requires knowing about the world and having a method of travel, as well as not being at war with the place you’re trying to visit! The change from small and elite to large and massive requires vast amounts of money and resources and the changes have taken place with staggered effects across most of the second half of the 20th Century, into this new century. It’s not just the number of students, Altbach emphasises, it’s the range of post-secondary options that have sprung up to meet technical and industrial demand. These new institutions have new charters, new focus areas, different lengths and types of degree and we suddenly find that, much as oranges are not the only fruit, training at a University that can grant PhDs may not be the best preparation for working at an institution that is post-secondary yet nothing much like the places that its teachers have come from. The ‘pinnacle’ research institutions, prestigious and few in number, serve a smaller group and are probably the most complex institutions in the spectrum, training the most professionals and receiving the lion’s share of research funding. This introduces tension, between the doctoral graduates of the pinnacle who may transfer to other institutions and find themselves at odds with a very different mission, and because any system where an entrenched elite receive advantages that allow them to stay elite is always going to cause tension. Massification has led to greater disparity. Yes, almost anyone can go to college, but it appears that achieving that has meant that we have now risked devaluing the term ‘college’ along the way. In Australia, students say they’re going to ‘Uni’ when that could mean TAFE (Technical and Further Education), adult education, or actual University. (We had a comprehensive shake-up some time ago that turned all of the institutes of technology into Universities, or we would have that distinction as well. The previous separation of degrees and ‘applied’ degrees had actually worked quite well, at least in my reading and opinion, but government initiatives are what they are, and we will talk more about this in the discussion of public and private good.) Should it matter what one does when the word ‘college’ is mentioned? No, it shouldn’t. The problem is when the issue becomes confusing or we provide a service that we call ‘college’ to all of our citizens, yet some citizens get a better version than others for reasons that are not transferable or equitable. To quote Altbach:

Massification inevitably creates more variations and diversity in academic systems. It creates opportunities for access that are unprecedented in world history, but at the same time it creates systems that are less equal and more difficult to support financially.

This brings us squarely into Altbach’s next point, the issue of public versus private good, a debate that rages unabated today. Changes in Australian University funding have very much been under the presumption that the greatest good is being enjoyed by the private citizen who receives the education, rather than the society to which they contribute, hence the citizen should bear more of the load for their own education. (My response is ‘piffle’, the benefit to our society of the educated is hard to overestimate,  but I’ve already discussed this in an earlier post.) As noted in the article, whether the state can or cannot support public education is moot as many states are just shifting the burden to the citizen and their families. This inevitably creates a two-speed system, where some go to college and some do not, because of influences and decisions that may have had an impact on the grandparents and parents of the student, rather than any personal merit. Given that, even in a meritocratic system, training programs and preparation schools can make all the difference, and these are usually private and expensive, any meritocratic system risks quickly falling into the same two-speed divide. Even if a place is available at the correct type of institution, the costs of relocating, leaving a secure community and moving from a more socialised and low-cash environment to an isolated, pay-up-front and distant location to attend a college may place another bar in the way of the prospective student from a less advantaged area. Mass higher education is supposed to be for the masses but solving the issues of nomenclature, access and preparation do nothing if no-one can actually attend unless they’re rich. Many of our activities are linked, in one way or another, to the public good and we are well aware that feeling that you are an active and contributing member of your society is usually associated with greater motivation to participate and be involved with this good. Any restrictive mechanisms driven by forcing the burden back on to the citizen, defended by the notion of personal benefit dominates any public benefit, undermine the ability of people to join and contribute to greater society: this undermines the public good, as well as setting the stage for disenfranchisement and a disengagement from society. Every time we do this, we risk casting another generation out of the circle of those who will go to college.

I’ll finish this tomorrow, with a discussion of the contemporary issues, from the report, and my own thoughts overall.

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