THE World University Rankings 2019: steer by your compass

Universities face a number of tough challenges, but they can rise to any test if they stick to their principles and continue their course, says Bernd Huber

September 26, 2018
Steering ship in storm
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We are living in difficult times; many certainties and stable institutions are suddenly under attack. In many countries in Europe, populist movements are gaining support and influence, and the tensions arising from issues such as migration, low economic growth and stagnant wages are worrying.

What does all this mean for universities and for the higher education system in general? Several things come to mind. First, in dangerous and difficult times, it is important to stick to principles and to hold the course. At the same time, it is also necessary to adapt to new realities and challenges. The difficult task ahead for universities is to strike a good balance between these two elements.

In terms of principles, the key idea of the university and its role must be maintained and defended. Universities are a place of free debate; lively discussions and exchanges are part of life at a university – and to a certain extent the very essence of it. One vital feature of a university is that people with different views are invited to participate in the discussion, be it in the sciences, the humanities or the social sciences. This idea has been challenged recently in the “no platforming” debate that many universities in the US and the UK face. It is interesting to note that German universities have (so far) not seen this kind of debate.

One important reason for this is, of course, that universities in Germany (and many others in continental Europe) are not residential campus institutions like their Anglo-American counterparts. In addition, most German universities have always run a rather restrictive course concerning public events, and they usually do not allow events of political parties and movements on their premises.

World University Rankings 2019: results announced

Another principle to be defended is the role of basic research. It is a popular view among governments, politicians and the general public that research should produce tangible impact or potential application. The underlying idea is that taxpayers can expect certain benefits from providing funding for research. Often, a distinction is made between “basic research” (with the explicit assumption that there may be little or no direct benefit) and “applied research” (which promises direct and potentially economically significant benefits). Because universities typically put a strong emphasis on basic research, they often come in for criticism and are exhorted to do more in terms of application and direct impact.

It has been stated and restated, but the message bears repeating that this view is highly misleading. Not only is the distinction between applied and basic research not really meaningful, it also ignores how, in the long run, research at universities and scientific progress are key drivers of innovation and long-term growth. Going beyond a purely utilitarian view of research, understanding phenomena, solving puzzles and creating new knowledge are important benefits of research for society.

The crucial problem with basic research is not a lack of application but rather that it is by nature what economists call a “public good”. The returns of basic research, be they scientific insights or economic advances, accrue to users all over the world and not only in the country where the research has been undertaken. An appreciation of this highlights the need to strengthen international cooperation in funding research. The European Research Council is an exemplary organisation in this respect.

But there are also new developments that require universities to adapt and change. The number of students has risen enormously over the past 30 years, and it will, according to many predictions, continue to climb in the future. In Germany, 50 per cent of an age cohort now attends university, while this figure was only 20 per cent in the 1990s. In many countries, the greater demand for higher education has more than compensated for any decline in student numbers resulting from demographic change.

These shifts come with new challenges: as a larger fraction of an age cohort enters higher education, the student population grows more diverse. Universities in continental Europe typically do not charge tuition fees and impose few admission restrictions. They are, thus, not very selective, which helps to handle increasing diversity. However, we also have to ensure that students from all backgrounds are provided with the resources they need to complete their education successfully.

With tertiary degrees becoming more prevalent, it is increasingly important that the higher education system differentiate to include a range of institutions, from universities following Humboldtian ideals to polytechnics. Another challenge for higher education is to strike the right balance between online and residential learning. This involves difficult questions concerning the quality and the cost of tuition.

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Universities also have to address the dramatic increase in research output. In 1950, about 50,000 articles in science and engineering were published annually; by the mid-2000s, this number had increased to 800,000. Today, it is 1.3 million. This raises several concerns. Although this increase in research is clearly welcome in terms of scientific output and progress, one naturally has to ask about the limits of such an expansion. Even more worrying is the question of research quality. Are peer-review mechanisms, which have been so successful in the past, still adequate to handle this glut of research output? How can we be sure that individual researchers, in particular junior ones, receive enough attention and have a fair chance for a career inside and outside academia?

Thus, universities face many difficult challenges, which require differentiated and complex responses. But this is not a new situation: history has shown that universities themselves are one of the most successful institutional innovations of humankind, and that is a source of optimism. 

Bernd Huber is president of LMU Munich.

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At least, what done so far by THE drive further higher education institutes to be better prepared for the more difficult future requiring the new thinking and more disruptive innovation for them to survive.

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