Latin America and Caribbean

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A more personal view of the profession

Three key challenges facing higher education and policymakers

Ellen Hazelkorn /

Our preoccupation with the relative standing of universities and national education systems—illustrated by the growing popularity and obsession with university rankings—reflects the consensus that higher education is essential for economic growth, global competitiveness and a civil society. Universities and nations are being measured according to indicators of global capacity and potential in which comparative and competitive advantages come into play. The more globalization drives a single market in education, as it does in most goods and services, the more higher education is a beacon for investment and talent—the more this kind of barometer is inevitable.

Common factors influencing higher education

While each country and university faces particular and often unique challenges, there are common factors that affect most countries around the world today—issues that have become more acute since the global financial crisis in 2008. Let me focus on the three big challenges of the moment:

  • Ensuring sustainable higher education systems at the same time that public funding is decreasing and competitiveness is increasing
  • Improving the quality of the total student experience even as the demand for participation is growing
  • Strengthening knowledge and innovation as drivers of growth while ensuring that multi- and cross-disciplinary critical inquiry is maintained.

“The more globalization drives a single market in education, the more higher education is a beacon for investment and talent.”

Ensuring sustainable education systems

The application of knowledge is now widely acknowledged as being the source of social, economic and political power. Studies repeatedly show the strong correlation between educational attainment and social and economic advantages for individuals and society. Over the last decades, access to higher education has expanded from being a privilege of birth or talent or both (elite phase), to a right for those with certain qualifications (mass phase), to being an obligation for the vast majority of society and occupations (universal). However, the financial crisis has exposed fundamental weaknesses in the funding model that underpins higher education.

The impact of the financial troubles in California on its public university system is symptomatic of problems around the world. Whether funded from public or private sources, escalating costs and tuition fees have prompted The Economist to suggest that higher education could be the next bubble (Schumpeter, 13 April 2011). At the same time, higher education faces increasing competition from China and India. What is the best way to sustain mass higher education at a time of decreasing public funding and escalating global competitiveness? Can tuition fees continue to rise—and what are the implications for widening access to a more diverse student cohort? Are there new business models or financial instruments more appropriate to the new environment? What regulatory and governance frameworks would work best?

Improving the quality of student experience

The quality of higher education is coming under increasing scrutiny. If higher education is the engine of the economy, governments are looking for verifiable and measurable evidence of benefit and impact. Students, as consumers, are questioning the value-for-money of their study program relative to the tuition fee that they pay, or to the institution’s status and reputation. Evidence of quality and the pursuit of excellence have become the key mantra dominating higher education, inside and outside the academy. Rankings have emerged as a simple shorthand for students and the public to gauge quality—but do rankings really measure what’s meaningful? What level of accountability is required? As participation widens beyond the traditional student cohort, how should pedagogical methods and modes of learning adapt? To enhance the quality of the total student experience, what barriers should be eliminated?

Strengthening knowledge and innovation

The rising prominence and obsession with global rankings have highlighted the investment attractiveness of nations based upon the capacity of their universities to produce new knowledge and lead innovation. In response, many countries have spearheaded a review of their higher education systems. The world-class research university has become the panacea for ensuring success in the global economy and world science. Kansas and Texas want to improve the performance of their universities because they are a magnet for investment; Sri Lanka has announced a strategy to upgrade six universities. Malaysia has a similar aim, and so do Nigeria, Denmark, France and Germany, to name just a few. However, many of these developments are leading to the prioritization of scientific and technological research over investment in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Our societies face serious problems; unemployment is a major issue. But, at the time when scientific and social challenges require collaborative interventions from a multidisciplinary perspective, there is growing evidence that simplistic economic indicators are being used to measure research quality. These changes are impacting on and changing universities, often in perverse ways. As the emphasis shifts to translating knowledge more quickly into new products and services, how can we ensure that the breadth of intellectual inquiry required to underpin civil society is preserved?

Local change reflects global shifts

We often look upon changes within our universities as peculiar to them, a phantom of the management or the culture. But the changes being experienced are worldwide. It is no cliché to say that higher education and policymakers are facing major challenges.

This article by Dr. Hazelkorn is one of several essays featured in the OCLC membership report, Libraries at Webscale, a discussion document for the library community about the impact of the Web on our rapidly changing information landscape, with opinions and ideas from industry analysts, thought leaders and educators.

About the Author

  • Ellen Hazelkorn

    Ellen Hazelkorn

    Vice President of Research and Enterprise, and Dean of the Graduate Research School, Dublin Institute of Technology