Global higher education ‘faces anarchy’ after unchecked expansion

Leading scholar says many countries have ‘neither the will nor the capacity’ to manage growth

March 24, 2017
anarchy sign painted on statue
Source: Alamy
This way: ‘I do think that what European analysts call government steering of systems broadly stated is necessary,’ said Philip Altbach

The expansion and differentiation of global higher education without a well-defined strategy means that the sector faces a “period of anarchy”, a study warns.

The report from the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) at Boston College added that governments have attempted to regulate enrolment and providers but with “diminishing success” as international forces such as rankings, market forces including the demand for new knowledge and skills, and social demand for greater access “make it nearly impossible to keep pace”.

The study, which calls for the “anarchy” to be turned into a “coherent and integrated system of good quality post-secondary institutions” that can deal with “21st-century challenges”, was commissioned by the Körber Foundation, a non-profit German organisation, in collaboration with the German Rectors’ Conference.

“Postsecondary education is passing through a period of anarchy, being diversified by a wide range of purposes and clienteles and seemingly beyond the capacity of any government to manage these changes well,” the study says.

Philip Altbach, founding director of CIHE and co-author of the study, Responding to massification: differentiation in postsecondary education worldwide, told Times Higher Education that countries “don’t quite understand how [higher education] works and what can be done to make it as effective as possible”.

He said that this is a “universal problem” but that some states in the US, such as California, have for the public sector “reasonably well-organised systems that divide the different kinds of institutions” based on the needs of the state and the needs of students.

The will to coordinate the system must come from governments, he said, because all higher education institutions “want to be Harvard”.

However, Professor Altbach said that the private sector, the fastest-growing portion of post-secondary education globally, is “not managed very well” in terms of quality or serving the broader public interest in any country, despite the fact that it has an “important” mission to serve a wider section of society.

Although former US president Barack Obama attempted to crack down on for-profit private universities, Professor Altbach said that these institutions are likely to “grow rapidly again” in the US under Donald Trump, who owned for-profit education company Trump University between 2005 and 2010.

“I’m not a guy who believes in Soviet planning models but I do think that what European analysts call government steering of systems broadly stated is necessary,” Professor Altbach said. “The California Master Plan is very state interventionist in that sense. Californians wouldn’t think of it that way but it is.”

Another potential model would be to classify types of institutions rather than rank them, in order to “get the public and governments to understand that there are different kinds of institutions”.

But Professor Altbach said he was “not that optimistic that there’ll be a major change”.

“Countries have to realise there’s a problem first and many don’t,” he said. “Massification is inevitable and dealing with it is not easy. And countries don’t want to devote more public resources to it and in many cases have neither the will nor the capacity to manage the growth that is occurring.

“And the changes in the economy present different needs which it’s hard for governments to predict.”

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