By Rob Cuthbert
A high-level Symposium on the Future of Global HE in London on 7 September offered much food for thought, but only those with elitist tastes would have come away completely satisfied. The Symposium assembled a stellar cast, but the narrow HE perspective of most contributors made for a well-meaning dialogue contained within and between some of the world’s self-styled elite universities, which account for only a small proportion of the rapidly expanding global student population.
There were many fine words about the need to respect teaching as well as research, the need to ensure service to society at all levels from local to global, to promote universities’ key role in protecting freedom of expression and the integrity of ideas, and to rethink higher education’s core business as digital technologies continue to transform possibilities for learning. So far, so good.
Speakers called for ‘generosity in partnership’ and said we need to cultivate equal partnerships in an unequal world, with repeated references to an African proverb: “To walk fast, walk alone. To walk far, walk together.” Other speakers struck similar notes, with one notable exception. Pedro Teixeira, Vice-Rector of the University of Porto, reported on his EU-funded research on trends in European HE policy, titling his contribution ‘Integration, Inequality and Economic Rationales’. He noted a strong policy theme emphasising differentiation in HE systems, focusing in a few schemes for ‘excellence’, mergers to create protective scale for the few, and the latent but growing inequalities in HE systems across Europe.
Global inequalities between North and South, and between developed and developing countries, are mirrored in the inequalities between ‘elite’ research-intensives and other universities in each national system. As the global participation rates in HE rise from the current 14% to a projected 25% by 2025, and perhaps beyond 40% by 2100 – implying 2 billion more students – elite universities talk of new digital technologies but ignore the universities which already provide HE for the vast majority of students now, and will surely do so in the foreseeable future. That point was reinforced by Raj Kumar, VC of OP Jindal Global University in India, who pointed out that the variety of providers and the age structure of the (much younger) population in South Asia made access and teaching capacity the key issue. He noted with regret that research was rarely mentioned in the region’s HE policy discussions. But not every university needs to mirror the self-styled elite in the nature, style and proportions of its research efforts.
Teixeira’s piercing analysis exposed the unintended irony of many other contributions. The rapacious Russell Group in the UK, the greedy Group of 8 in Australia, and their counterparts in other countries, have no compunction in reaching for the lion’s share of their country’s HE resources – ‘to protect excellence’, of course – despite collateral damage to the rest of their HE sector. If we are to take seriously the rhetoric of the ‘elite’, then generosity in partnership needs to begin at home, where there is scope for many more equal partnerships in the unequal world of each national HE sector.
In many countries the integrity of the whole HE sector is threatened by the pressures which prompt us to reflect on ‘The Future of Global HE’, especially declining public funding and changing public perceptions. We need to rethink the role of the university in a way which respects the variety in each system, and the contributions which all universities and other HE providers can make. The most prestigious universities need to understand that more (than) research is needed if they are to walk far together, rather than simply walking fast alone.
The Symposium on the Future of Global Higher Education, held in London on 7 September 2017, was organised by SRHE Fellow Simon Marginson (UCL) and Laurie Pearcey (University of New South Wales, Sydney (UNSW), and supported by the University of New South Wales, Sydney and the UCL-based ESRC/HEFCE Centre for Global Higher Education.