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Symposium 2012

Proposal - Redefining Universities

The Challenge

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 countr ...

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).

Up until a short while ago, a typical definition of a university would have been characterized by at least the following elements: having an appropriate building with lecture halls, positioning itself distinctively between secondary education and the labor market, employing lecturers with at least a PhD and encouraging students to do research work independently. Outstanding research universities have been the reference point for centuries – and all other higher education institutions had to try to live up to that standard.

These traditions are now called into question all over the world, especially by private and forprofit institutions with profiles that used to be uncommon or even unimaginable in the field of higher education (for example being organized only via social networks, having no own legal entity, only granting certificates for qualifications and knowledge gained outside the university). A rising variety of new profiles of higher education institutions is emerging and higher education providers from all over the world offer their products in increasingly borderless markets.

Changed needs of society as well as altered demands of economic and labor markets result in widened borders of the higher education system (becoming both broader and more specialized). However, it is clear that not any educational institution should be considered as a university. Developing and maintaining a balanced landscape of universities that meet both academic excellence and societal demands requires well-designed regulative measures imposed by governments and the creative power of a free academic market. In order to avoid overregulation (and accepting the conditions of borderless education markets), any government should limit and at the same time concentrate its systemic policies on the following three decisive goals: (1) marking the lower border of the academic market by defining minimum institutional standards, (2) stimulating institutional diversity by establishing suitable incentive structures, and (3) promoting market transparency by helping to make multi-dimensional excellence publicly visible.

1. Government should (carefully!) define lower limits of higher education
Not every educational institution should be considered as a university. In order to protect students from “wrong” and unprofitable educational investments certain minimum quality standards of higher education should be assured. At first, any higher education institution should be able to guarantee institutional stability by proving and securing financial solidity. But such and other input-oriented criteria like having an own legal entity, disposing of appropriate facilities, or employing only lecturers with at least a PhD should not play a solitary role in defining the minimum standards of higher education.

Instead, the challenge of redefining universities particularly asks for paying attention, whether a higher education institution serves the essential purposes of a university, i.e.

  • follows a consistent educational strategy, offers coherent curricula and appropriate quality assurance mechanisms to successfully deliver predefined qualification goals,
  • builds up individual competences at a level at least above secondary education,
  • issues certificates to make individual competences transparent,
  • awards recognized degrees, at least at Bachelor-level and
  • enables graduates to be successful in the labor market and/or the scientific world.

This line marks the lower border of the academic market beyond which we cannot attribute an institution to the “higher education system”, thereby primarily protecting the individual student (not to be confused with attempts to protect a certain home market).

2. Government should stimulate institutional diversity
Relevance and excellence of a university are not only determined by research: They have to be understood and assessed multi-dimensionally. Universities have to clearly define their institutional profiles in order to satisfy different needs. A university can not only be successful in research but for example also in regional development, in teaching, in continuing education, in focusing on a very specific teaching mode or target group. Policy makers should see universities in an extended perspective and enable them to explore adequate directions and appreciate different kinds of excellence. To overcome the deep-rooted reputation-seeking “academic drift” towards a first class research institution, we urgently need suitable incentive systems, for instance substantial initiatives in teaching or universityindustry cooperation. Not least, funding should be based on diverse criteria (student-related funding, program funding and performance indicators).

3. Governments should promote transparency
Transparency for the stakeholders is the necessary condition for any free market to function. Instead of overregulation, governments should invest more in fair and useful transparency of the higher education market in order to enable consumers to make a well-informed choice of their educational investments. To ensure that different kinds of excellence gain acceptance in society, the labor market and academia, it is the governments’ task to enforce transparency about the multidimensional performance of universities and help implementing adequate tools to make the variety of excellence dimensions publicly visible. This is especially important since media still cultivate a one-dimensional view on higher education and with that an intransparent and narrow approach to defining excellence. To be more specific, governments should support the implementation of multi-dimensional rankings that are based on different criteria (e.g. teaching & learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation, regional engagement1, social responsibility etc.). This kind of horizontal differentiation makes various profiles visible, but at the same still allows for vertical performance differentiation within a certain type of higher education institutions.2

 


1http://ec.europa.eu/education/higher-education/doc/multirank_en.pdf, p. 39ff, 52ff.

2Today, different efforts in order to achieve multi-dimensional transparency are being made: The classification of U-Map (EU; http://www.u-map.eu/) or Carnegie Foundation (USA; http://classifications.carnegiefoundation.org/) for instance are attempts to make horizontal diversity visible and institutional diversity transparent; U-Multirank offers a new international transparency tool of vertical diversity which is “multi-dimensional, multi-level and user-driven” (van Vught, F. A./Ziegele, F. (2012). Multidimensional Ranking: The Design and Development of U-Multirank. Springer Netherlands).

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