Universities in a changing World 1: The Tectonic Shift


September 17th, 2013

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In the first of a series of blogs which explores the issues faced by the Higher Education sector, David Cleeton-Watkins highlights the shift in purpose required within this vital sector.

The world’s largest university has almost 3.5 million students. All 10 of the largest in terms of students are in Asia – if you include Turkey in ‘Asia Minor’, many in India.  Of the top 20, only 3 are in the western hemisphere, in Mexico and USA. All were founded since 1945.

At the other end of the scale, the list of those chosen as the world’s 10 best universities, based mostly on academic standing – as rated by THES, is dominated by US institutions and 3 from UK: Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the top Asian universities are all within East Asia – in China, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore for example.  On the European stage UK fares much better, with more universities than any other country in the top 10. We are fortunate indeed that English is the lingua franca for so much of the World.

Has higher education moved from acting as a wide social enabler, engaged in thought, vision and purpose for our greater good to providing a narrower utilitarian commodity to serve commercial ends?

So what you say? Perhaps the biggest issues here are the choices an institution must make – especially from a UK perspective – decisions about where and how ‘to play’. It may not be enough to create a corporate plan that manages the numbers to provide surplus and growth, or to improve the ‘quality’ of student experience if this is at the cost of the personal development that is possible when the environment is more idiosyncratic.

The Tectonic Shift goes un-noticed if we believe our institutions can go on as they are. At the same time, UKHE might need to adopt a more complex and localised sense of their attractiveness, focusing on disciplines or methodologies that reflect our more ‘niche’ status.

This year Caltech replaced Harvard as Number 1, and Oxford displaced Cambridge here in the excellence list. This is just the start: every HE provider needs to take a long hard look at why they are proceeding as they are. Do we cling to too many shibboleths? Witness our constant pre-occupation with days of yore.

Let us have your thoughts on the clarity of purpose your university has adopted, and how well this reflects choices that help to develop the people of UK plc to provide a beacon that attracts others.

DavidCleetonWatkinsPDDavid will be leading a webinar which explores and discusses universities in a changing world.  Visit the webinar page to find out more and to reserve your place.