Invisible universities offer tangible rewards

December 3, 1999

Globalisation and the knowledge-based economy pose challenges to all purveyors of tertiary education, argues Jamil Salmi

Imagine a university without buildings or classrooms or even a library, 10,000 miles away from its students, delivering online programmes or courses through franchise institutions overseas. Imagine a university without academic departments, without required courses or majors or grades issuing degrees valid only for five years after graduation. Imagine a higher education system where institutions are ranked not by the quality of teaching, but by the intensity of electronic wiring and the degree of internet connectivity. Imagine a country whose main export earnings come from the sale of higher education services. Imagine a socialist country that charges tuition fees to obtain full cost recovery in public higher education.

These images are not science fiction, but actual stories of a revolution in higher education. In the past few years, many countries have witnessed significant reforms. Three intertwined challenges bear heavily on the role and functions of higher education. Globalisation forces countries and firms to compete in the international economy; knowledge is of growing importance as a factor of economic growth; and the information and communication revolution has radically transformed the capacity to store, transmit and use information.

Developing economies have tremendous opportunities for catching up with the industrialised nations. But only a handful -particularly East Asian countries - are succeeding in significantly narrowing the gap. These countries' positive experience appears to be linked to the ability to acquire and apply new knowledge. Tertiary education institutions play a critical role in the creation and transmission of knowledge, and in the training of a competitive workforce and of political and business leaders. Also, university research and development activities translate into technical support and product innovation for the private and public sectors.

Universities will have to accommodate the learning and training needs of working students, leading to a significant change in their demographic shape.

In the United States, a rapidly growing number of online universities are reaching out to students in foreign countries. In Asia and Eastern Europe, there has been a proliferation of courses offered by franchise institutions on behalf of British and Australian universities.

The decreased importance of physical distance means that the best universities of any country can open a branch anywhere in the world or reach out across borders using the internet, effectively competing with any national university on its own territory.

The emergence of these new forms of competition is likely to change the nature of quality assurance mechanisms and criteria. At institutional level, it is doubtful that the same principles and standards applied to evaluate campus-based programmes can be used. At national level, countries need to develop information systems and participate in international networks to be able to evaluate the foreign programmes offered to their students through franchise institutions or online.

As a consequence, many universities need to undertake drastic transformations in governance, structure and modes of operation. A key aspect is the ability to reorganise traditional disciplines to accommodate emerging fields such as molecular biology and

biotechnology, advanced materials science, microelectronics, information systems, robotics, intelligent systems and neuroscience, and environmental science.

Each country needs to choose appropriate strategies to raise enrolment and move from an elite to an expanded, more differentiated system, given prevailing constraints on public resources. To achieve expansion, countries should diversify further the provision of higher learning through a variety of institutions: public or private, large or small, universities or non university institutions, short or medium term, liberal arts or technological, research-based institutions and those that sustain scholarship. Strengthening the financial viability of tertiary education institutions is equally important to sustain growth and quality enhancement efforts. This involves the introduction of more effective resource allocation, mobilisation of alternative funding sources and appropriate student aid mechanisms to improve access and equity.

Finally, the successful implementation of any reform or innovation is conditioned by the ability of decision-makers to build a consensus among the constituents of the academic community. Involving potential opponents in the policy discussion process carries risks, but ignoring this dimension is a recipe for failure.

Jamil Salmi is coordinator of the World Bank's tertiary education thematic group.

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