It is clear that higher education needs to be rethought, and not in a trivial sense. In many parts of the world, enormous cracks are appearing in the edifice and I do not think that they can be mended by some quick repairs. We need to think long and hard about where we are going and why – but critique is not enough, not nearly enough. Indeed, critique seems to keep on going round in circles, as the recent interventions by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books and Simon Head in the New York Review of Books show.
These interventions may make some telling points but they are just the latest in a long line of jeremiads which rehearse many of the same criticisms of current trends without giving much if any sense of what might be done instead - except for dreaming of a return to the apparently high-minded time before the massification of higher education and the simultaneous growth of universities as machines for doing research produced the tensions we now have to live with and cannot just wish away.
It is worth listing, in no particular order, just a few of these tensions since they also provide a list of what needs to be rethought and even fixed in 2011 and beyond beginning with the inevitable – the finances.
Budgets. There is not enough money to go round every institution that wants to be a University of the old school but only a few brave institutions are willing to strike out in new directions.
Social inclusion. In one way the growth of mass higher education systems may actually have reinforced the relative position of elites in that some universities can function as positional goods which illustrate the recipient’s status to an even greater extent than before.
Star Player syndrome. The position of the top institutions has generally been cemented at the expense of institutions farther down the hierarchy by the way in which these institutions can draw money (and therefore talent) to them, and by rankings.
Arts and humanities angst. The arts and humanities feel threatened by the growth of big science and medical schools but they have yet to find arguments with enough traction to produce the level of public support or a sufficiently generally accepted level of cultural importance that, quite rightly, they feel they need.
The role of the state. The degree to which mass higher education should be regarded as a public good clashes with states (and taxpayers) willingness to pay for it. This tension has become a moment of political contest in many parts of the world but the resolution tends to stay political instead of being founded in principle.
The third sector. Higher education is surrounded by a list of secondary players who are having primary forms of influence: recruitment consultants, management consultants, league tablers, think tanks, and so on. Unlike universities, the position of these players is generally unregulated and this must clearly be a concern as the global financial crisis has only too clearly shown.
Research careers. Universities are producing large number of researchers who are unlikely to all have a sustained research career. Even though many of these will find excellent jobs in other sectors this must remain a concern.
World problems. As I have noted in an online debate, universities are key to solving many of the world’s problems but the lifeboats have holes in them. In particular, it is not clear that universities are optimally organized to solve these problems in their current manifestation.
It is a fearsome list any way you look at it. Over the course of the next few months, I intend to return to each of these tensions and to try to suggest at least the beginnings of some positive solutions. But note the use of the word ‘tension’. Life includes many dilemmas which cannot be solved as such but have to be accommodated.