Given the rising crescendo of despair over the present state and future prospects of universities in the English-speaking world, it is refreshing to hear the voice of a distinguished Northern European commentator on what may be in store for all institutions of higher learning in coming decades.
In Higher Education in 2040, Bert van der Zwaan, rector magnificus of Utrecht University, describes the numerous political, economic, social and technological forces reshaping the sector worldwide. Ranging over the emergence of Trumpist populism, nationalism, urbanisation, robotisation and labour market dislocation, van der Zwaan offers no respite from the inexorable drivers of fundamental change in higher education. We are offered fatalistic acceptance of rising tuition fees as the universal antidote to governments choosing to support investments in healthcare rather than higher education. But no serious counter-argument is offered for higher education as a social good, still less for the maintenance of zero tuition in countries such as Sweden and Germany, policies that the author describes as “socialist”.
Van der Zwaan’s projections provide further evidence of the deepening divide between comprehensive research-intensive (ie, elite) universities and the rest, which will need to differentiate and find new niches. Noting that the largely privatised “entrepreneurial university” model of the US has deep roots and is largely successful in its own terms, he asserts – rather chillingly – that “we can expect every system to move further in the direction of the American extreme”.
He makes a clear case for the continued strengthening of world-leading innovation clusters or “knowledge hubs” – especially in cosmopolitan urban locations such as San Francisco, Boston, London, Singapore and the Randstad conurbation in the Netherlands. Van der Zwaan also discusses the growing impact of digital technologies on curricula, which he predicts will become increasingly “unbundled”, with lifelong learners moving in and out of institutions picking up formal or informal credentials and even full degrees over time, and interweaving their knowledge acquisition activities with their career needs.
This idea, popularised by Ryan Craig in his 2015 book College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, and further legitimated by proponents of disruption such as Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School, really is an existential threat to the non-elite institutions, and something that should instil fear into all institutions with relatively weak reputations.
So to counter these threats, and to make a stronger economic and social case for universities, van der Zwaan describes the importance of engaging in deeper conversations with governments and establishing renewed public legitimacy: “The university of the future will derive its right to existence from being active in the world and by producing knowledge for the world.” He does not advocate building legitimacy through placing greater reliance on rankings and government-imposed accountability mechanisms. But neither does he offer much in the way of concrete suggestions as to how to achieve legitimacy in an increasingly cynical world dominated by alternative facts, zero-sum thinking and declining government support.
Higher Education in 2040 is a thoughtful and well-researched mixture of direct observations, personal perspectives, opinions and encouragement to universities to embrace change. It contains many generalities and assumptions and a good many lists. Minor glitches in translation from Dutch to English do not detract from the text, and the author’s enthusiasm and knowledge of his subject shines through. Readers hoping for a fundamental challenge to neoliberal assumptions about the future of universities from an incumbent university leader will have to wait a little longer, but this is a worthwhile read.
David Wheeler is chairman of the International Higher Education Group and the former president of Cape Breton University, Canada.
Higher Education in 2040: A Global Approach
By Bert van der Zwaan
Amsterdam University Press, 256pp, £15.99
Published 22 March 2017