Around the world, we all have to 'stand up' to short-termism

The academy must call itself and politicians to a 'higher plane', NYU president tells Sarah Cunnane

October 21, 2010

The global higher education community needs to "stand up, shake a fist and shame political leaders" who are taking a short-term view over its future, according to the president of New York University.

John Sexton, who is also chair of the American Council on Education, issued the rallying cry in an interview with Times Higher Education after being appointed chair of the council's new Blue Ribbon Panel on Global Engagement.

Given the pace of change in higher education worldwide, Professor Sexton said it was no longer enough to consider how decisions may affect future generations, but that consideration should be given to the impact on the sector five or 10 years down the line.

He warned that current government policies risked turning students into what he termed "I-shaped people: that is, people with very narrow focus and deep knowledge - sometimes not all that deep - in only one area".

Instead, he said, universities should be producing "T-shaped people: students who have breadth and depth. We need to be educating people for life, to be citizens, as well as for one specific discipline."

As an example of current short-sighted policies, he cited the growing concern voiced by commentators and politicians in the US over rising tuition fees.

"It's a sad thing to see our political and chattering classes directing fire at the tuition-dependent schools in a demagogic way," he said.

"What people fail to see is that if you tell a university like NYU to charge $40,000 (£25,000) rather than $50,000, you've just given a $10,000 scholarship to Bill Gates' kid and prevented us from taking that extra money and using it as financial aid for poor and middle-class kids."

Professor Sexton acknowledged that there were "a lot of lamentable things" to be found within US higher education, among them an ethnocentrism that leaves the sector in some ways "not well positioned to talk about this exciting moment that global higher education finds itself in".

However, he said, the US sector was starting to become more aware of its position in a global context. "If US institutions want to be centres for the world's talent, they can't simply rely on the magnetic power that has existed for four or five decades to attract that talent and they can't be one-way participants. They can't expect to sit in their locations and have the world's creative classes gravitate to them."

The higher education community is at an "inflection point", Professor Sexton said.

"The reality is that the world has miniaturised - travel, technology, communications, all have driven a sort of planetisation," he said.

"Leaders of higher education need to call themselves, their societies and their political thought leaders to a higher plane because there is a real opportunity here to advance humankind."

He added that the Blue Ribbon Panel, which includes representatives from the UK, mainland Europe, Australia and China as well as a variety of US institutions, will concentrate on "how we within higher education could be much more self-conscious about the way we could respond to the miniaturisation of the world".

He also said that the globalisation of higher education did not necessarily mean that there would be standardisation of approaches to teaching and research. "Difference multiplies the possibilities for research and learning," he said. "But we recognise that, because of that difference, not every institution will wish to go global, not every institution will have the capability to, and it may not be appropriate for some. One of the things the new panel will try to do is give suggestions and a variety of responses that may be taken by a range of institutions."

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