Many academics are unaware of profound changes occurring to the university sector that threaten to fundamentally alter the nature of higher education, a leading educationist claimed this week.
As the boundaries between public and private-sector higher education become blurred, universities are increasingly behaving like global businesses, but the implications of these changes are not being debated, said Stephen Ball, professor of the sociology of education at the University of London's Institute of Education.
Professor Ball told Times Higher Education: "Higher education is increasingly a global business, and public-sector universities are now participating in that global business in an increasingly businesslike manner ... It is difficult to determine what counts as a public university any more.
"There is a tension between a commercial model of higher education and forms of learning and knowledge that don't have a commercial value. If we don't think about these things, the whole nature of higher education is going to change without anyone paying much attention to it."
In a lecture at the Staff and Educational Development Association annual conference earlier this month, Professor Ball referred to UK universities setting up overseas campuses, for example in China, and said that there was no real debate about what this meant for notions such as academic freedom and the Western liberal university. Similarly, private global higher education brands were emerging and doing business with UK public universities.
"I'm not condemning these things, but there needs to be an open debate about them," Professor Ball said.
"People who are immersed in the day-to-day business of teaching and learning don't always have a sense of how the context around them is changing.
"If there are things we value in the notion of public-sector higher education, then that needs to be thought about and defended."