There are two big trends in higher education: "individualization" and "massification." The former is important mainly in developed countries whereas the latter takes places mainly in developing countries. Yet distinctions between the systems of developed and developing countries cannot be sharply drawn: on the one hand, outstanding students from developing countries want individualized education; and on the other hand, aspiring students from developed countries want good value for money (which means massification).
Three important factors influence and interact with these two trends. The first is changing technology, which may be able to foster both individualization and massification, for example, via e-learning. The second is the changing needs of societies, economies and labor markets, to which universities have to adapt their strategies. And the third is widening participation.
The one-dimensional aim of being a globally outstanding research university reveals thought patterns based on traditional academic formats. Most people acknowledge that there are a few "real Ivy League universities," some "partial Ivy League universities" and many "wannabe Ivy League universities." Yet most universities around the world still strive for the same goal: to be a globally well-known research institution, creating an inviting atmosphere on campus and thus attracting the best students and researchers—in sum, to be like an Ivy League university.
Universities are usually differentiated vertically, for example, through a static league table measuring the total quality of all universities. But differentiation should also be made horizontally through multidimensional league tables based on different criteria—for example, putting a new orientation into practice or cultivating a specific profile through focusing on certain disciplines, teaching modes or specific target groups. Yet the media still take a one-dimensional approach to defining excellence in higher education.
Widening participation is changing not only the profiles and organization of universities but also the whole idea of higher education. It may be time to redefine what constitutes a university. For example, in Germany, universities not run by the state have to verify that they are capable of providing teaching and research that meet certain established standards. Yet counting square meters of lecture rooms and specifying libraries' inventories are inadequate for assessing a higher education institution that might be organized through social networks.
If regulation assumes that the lower limits of higher education can be defined, where is the line beyond which an institution cannot be attributed to the higher education sector? Will innovative new institutions respond to demand more adequately than established universities or will existing universities reinvent themselves successfully?
In the absence of government regulation, a great variety of university profiles is emerging, notably in the United States. Is it the government’s responsibility to ensure that there is a well-balanced landscape of universities—one that both provides academic excellence and meets society’s demands of the sector—or can this be done more effectively by “free” markets? Can diversity be imposed by government? And if free markets are the solution and different kinds of excellence have to gain acceptance in the academic environment, the labor market and wider society, how can multidimensional transparency be achieved?