The Complex Roles Of Universities In The Period Of Globalization – Altbach – Part 3

To finish this triptych, I’d like to look at Altbach’s assessment of contemporary issues. Private education providers are one of the most obvious recent developments and, with the erosion of the public good motivator, this is no real surprise. It’s less of a surprise when you affix the word “Profit-making” in front of the words ‘education provider’. Given that there is growing demand for education and also given that we are blurring the lines between the institutions, it becomes easy to see why a new market has exploded for people who wish to provide education, or something like it, at a reasonable fee with a possibility of making lots and lots of money. This, however, has an impact on the public sector because it reduces the students who may have come to us for a variety of reasons, especially when the private institutions are targeting the more wealthy in some way. Suddenly, we find ourselves having to justify which kinds of knowledge we are teaching in the public sector because the type of knowledge, and the jobs it leads to, become an issue when you are competing for students inside certain professional areas. Faculties of Arts across the world are very much feeling themselves caught in this pinch. It is hard to imagine many older Universities making such a bald statement such as “There is no need for History or English Scholars”, yet by pumping resources into their professional and technical streams they are saying it through their resource distribution. If something does not provide income or attract the right market, a jaded eye is cast across it and, depending on the wealth and capacity of the institution, this leads to the shutting down of schools or entire faculties.

Why is this such a problem? Because restarting a discipline is much harder once the number of participants drops down too far. Reduce the number of people in a discipline and their shared publications and venues also shrink. Given that publication is vital to perceived success in many ways, this shrinkage will make it harder to publish OR lead to accusations of irrelevance as the overall citation level drops because there are so few people in the area. We are so heavily measured and assessed, as individuals and as universities, that we are beleaguered by league tables and beset by set publication standards. Our management structures, modes of accountability, the way that we have worked and thought for centuries are not a good fit for this new modality. This is not the golden age ramblings that I have previously pointed to as dreaming of better days – in this case, it’s true. Our systems don’t work with the new expectations.

Opening ourselves up to students from anywhere is a noble goal, and one I support wholeheartedly, but it brings great challenge. Can we pursue anything that interests us, relevant or not, and expect to meet the demands of the new century? If we can, I don’t think we can do it with the systems that we have and certainly not while we’re being measured on externally applied metrics of success. Even deciding on whether a student should be admitted or not is now a matter of school ranking, bonus points, place availability, status and, in murkier waters, the two speed entry system of public and privately-funded places in the same institution, where admitting one party may (in the worst case) prevent another from entering. As Altbach notes, our ideas of governance are changing as our scale grows and our complexity increases. Senior Professors used to set our course but now we either need or have taken on trained administrators who do not think as we do, have not had our training and, in many ways, treat us as a standard business with a strange product. We are more accountable than ever, while we wander around being randomly measured and trying to work out what it is that we need to do in order to be measured accurately and then try and perform our tasks of learning, teaching and research. How do we reconcile the community of scholars with the bureaucracies that run our institutions?

Altbach then moves on to discuss developing countries and the special challenges that they face. Many of these countries have broken links to their indigenous cultures, due to colonisation, occupation, war and civil unrest, and, when combined with the colonial trend to keep investment in higher education low, this means that many of these countries are systematically disadvantaged. Their systems are so small that expansion is hard – insufficient training grounds for new educators, delay in building and resource appropriation and the threat of instability combine to make it very hard to kickstart anything. Poverty and lack of local government resources move some of these attempts across to the ‘impossible’ category. As it becomes hard to limit enrolments, overcrowding is the norm and, while you can’t limit enrolment, you can use draconian measures to ensure that anyone who falls behind is ejected, in the hope that freeing up that slot might ease some of the crush on the resources. This is a very unforgiving approach to education: you have one chance, you blew it, goodbye. Given that this is one of the only paths out of poverty in many of these countries, and that it is very easy to fall behind in a poor and resource-starved system, this is a nasty little feedback loop. Where other institutions are built up in response to demand, these newer academies tend not to offer the same level of education and we once again have the problem of a piece of paper that is not as worthy as another: we are providing education in name only and creating yet another two-speed system. Where the job market and the educational bodies don’t keep up with each other you may have that most awful ghetto: the educated unemployed, who have invested time and money into a degree that grants them no advantage at all.

Where we are over-stretched, we tend to only do those things that generate the most benefit and this is also true in the case of these third world Universities. Teaching earns money so teaching dominates. Research is sidelined, international collaboration is sidelined and staff have no time to do anything except teach because they are trying to keep their salary coming. Unsurprisingly, this is not a stage set of excellence and advancement – these universities are falling further and further behind.

Altbach concludes by talking about the pressure that we are all under and that have made the majority of our institutions reactive, limiting our creativity to solving pressing problems in a response to external pressures. Right now, we are running so fast that we do not have time to question why we are even on this treadmill, let alone take any real steps to make serious change that is truly strategic rather than reactive. We have lost our autonomy to a degree, as well as our identity. We are enmeshed in society but in a role that favours the market forces and makes us dance in response to it. Altbach ponders what our role should be and proposes a move towards the broader public interest, moving away from market forces and towards academic autonomy.This is not the selfish “leave me alone” cry of a spoiled child, this is a recognition of the fact that we have many more things to offer than a diploma and a vocation: universities are societies of thinkers and are far more complex and diverse than our current strictures would make us appear. All universities are important, says Altbach, and it is at society’s peril that it ignores the many roles that a University can provide. Looking at us as profit-making, degree factories, or as an elite streaming system, ignores the grand public benefit of an educated society, the value of the public intellectual and the scholarly community. We deserve support, says Altbach, because serve the goals of society and the individual. Let us do our jobs properly.

I found it to be a very interesting article to read and I hope I’ve capture the essence reasonably well. I look forward to discussing it! Thanks again, RV!

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