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THE FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION / Vol. 79, No. 3 (Fall 2012)

Arien Mack, Editor

This special issue brings together scholars and university leaders and education experts from around the world to investigate the challenges facing higher education and the traditional research university; discuss the goals and uses of higher education globally; assess and respond to the risks it faces; and propose methods to maximize the opportunities for change.


A panel of university leaders explores the current state of higher education in the United States not only to assess what is going on now and what might be intelligently be done to improve higher education today, but what we should be aiming for 20 to 30 years from now.


The need for higher education will be of increasing importance in our knowledge-driven future. It has become increasingly clear that our current paradigms for the university, its teaching and research, service to society, and financing, all must change rapidly and perhaps radically. Hence, the real question is not whether higher education will be transformed but rather how and by whom. If the university is capable of transforming itself to respond to the needs of a global culture of learning, then what is currently perceived as the challenge of change may, in fact, become the opportunity for a renaissance, an age of enlightenment, in higher education in the years ahead.

The perception of a crisis in American higher education—proclaimed by numerous books—has led to a call for "outcomes testing," testing of the "value added" by a student's college education. After discussing some examples of such testing (as recommended originally by the 2006 Spellings Commission Report), I ask whether we really want to take such an exclusively instrumental view of knowledge and its uses. The humanities, I believe, do and should promote another kind of knowing that I refer to under the rubric, "the ethics of reading."


Over the next decade, we should anticipate a series of profound changes to the educational landscape, influenced by several intersecting trends. We can expect these innovations to create a series of new opportunities that will address and improve some of the enduring issues that have faced education—such as access and quality—with the potential to radically alter its ecology and economics. Simply allowing these changes to take place, however, will not guarantee positive results. There are new requirements for technological, organizational, and cultural preparedness in order to promote the desired outcomes. Understanding the dynamics behind these shifts allows us to lay the groundwork for leveraging the new opportunities. By observing some of the recent efforts sponsored by MIT, and drawing larger conclusions about the structural changes to the educational landscape that they might represent, we can highlight and discuss some new concepts that will challenge traditional assumptions about the development and delivery of education resources.

How are the ever-rising costs of university education affecting universities? Can limits be imposed? These questions are important in discussing the financial future of research universities, but they pose nothing on the revenue side. The possibility of revenue enhancements also needs to be considered.


Are research universities simple reflections of the society that gives them life, subject to local cultural and political norms? Or are they leaders of their society, a place for cutting-edge thought and debate? This is a question that is not discussed by ministerial or academic leaders in China. Rather, it is an underlying question that is a source of tension and will likely emerge slowly as the central government continues its uneven progress toward greater economic liberty. It is also a vital question if China wishes to develop a set of comprehensive research universities that are truly among the top in the world—and not simply good producers of scientific research and patents. The national Outline for Medium and Long Term Education Reform and Development (otherwise known as the 2020 Blueprint) appears to make one more step toward supporting a select group of universities to adopt features of some of the world's best and influential universities, including offers of greater autonomy and funds for improving academic management. At the same time, the 2020 Blueprint retains the ethos of central ministerial planning and control and has been presented in an environment in which criticism of society's problems remain constrained. Globalization, including increased interaction with the university faculty and leader in the US, EU and elsewhere, is creating a consensus among China's academic leaders that increased institutional independence will be necessary for their universities to fully mature. Yet this will be a slow process, shaped by Chinese societal norms and the still dominant hand of the national government.

South Africa's university system is by far the most developed on the African continent. Eighteen years after the fall of apartheid we must ask whether there is anything approaching a national consensus about the place of university in development. This is still an open question. The legacies of apartheid continue to shape debates about how to think of the place of higher education in this society that is at once an exciting new experiment in democracy and the most unequal society in the world. South Africa's flirtations with the knowledge economy have implications for the way in which we think about its universities. Its status as being 12rd in the world in terms of the Human Development Index has other implications for this. In this paper we examine the tensions that undergird the higher education policy debates - the most often reflect conflictual imaginations of the ‘new’ South Africa.


Advanced economies entered an era of mass higher education in the second half of the 20th century. This social achievement is a putative cause of an emerging knowledge-based economy that places a high premium on human capital, and is driving modern nation states to improve the quality and efficiency of postsecondary education. Although such efforts are occurring worldwide, developments in Europe in recent years have been particularly dramatic, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Germany. Broad stakeholder participation supported the German government in designing an "Excellence Initiative" to strengthen its university sector. Investing more than $6 billion, the government worked with the German Research Foundation and the Science Council to mount an ambitious competition, strengthening research throughout the university sector and also selecting a limited number of promising universities for intense funding. Two successive competitions were held, one culminating with awards in 2007 and the other in 2012. A total of 14 universities received large "future-oriented" grants, six for each of ten years, and eight for each of five years. The competition relied on evaluations by internationally renowned scholars, of whom more than 85 percent were citizens of nations other than Germany. Implications for Germany are discussed, along with lessons for the United States.

This essay examines the challenges of institutional diversity in the research mission within public university systems in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico. The end of authoritarian regimes and economic growth have fostered university research and advanced training. The consolidation of a faculty body of full-time, research-trained and oriented scholars is taking a place in the few universities in each country ranking among the top in the region, although its relative weight varies considerably between institutions and countries. A more clearly differentiated research and advanced training mission within national systems would identify them as research universities. The essay briefly explores and compares how recent policies in higher education and science and technology may be having an impact upon institutional diversity.

In some respects, on the morrow of the Arab Spring of 2011, the future of higher education in the Arab world could not be brighter—though perhaps only because the present is so dim. Decades of authoritarian rule, with its debilitating limitations on academic freedom, underinvestment in public institutions, and populist open enrollment policies all contributed to weakening the quality of the research universities in the region. The more recent appearance of investment in vanity projects—including branch campuses of US universities—on the part of both governments and private investors, is further complicating the economics of higher education in the region, creating perverse patterns in faculty salaries and student tuitions without producing substantial research or education of any quality. That said, the appearance of even moderately more open, accountable, and transparent regimes will provide significant opportunities for innovation in the Arab world.


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