Universities at a Crossroads

June 22, 2010

WASHINGTON – Given the influence of rapid globalization and the emergence of knowledge-based societies, the universities of the future will bear virtually no resemblance to those of today. Or so argued a group of American and Asian education leaders who gathered here Monday to speculate on how the sector may evolve to meet future challenges.

The academics on the panel, presented by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, seemed to agree that the universities of the future will have to become more entrepreneurial to meet the needs of young people with new learning styles and older people who may need continuing education throughout their life. Given this, most of the discussion among the panelists focused on how the current model of higher education should adapt.

William Pepicello, president of the University of Phoenix, the largest for-profit education provider in the United States, argued that “the next generation of students is expecting that higher education is going to be as accessible as the rest of the world,” which, he noted, is increasingly available at students' fingertips via commercial devices that access the Internet. He noted that the universities of tomorrow should be able to adapt to their students and not vice versa, much as Google and Yahoo can customize Web searching to personal preferences.

“Is there any reason why higher education platforms shouldn’t be able to adapt to the people, to the students who come there for help?” Pepicello asked. “And in a variety of ways, not just in consumer ways but in learning style, for instance, and in preferences of learning materials?”

Many universities have data on how students learn and their preferences for textbooks or other visual aids, he said, noting that adapting is just a matter of integrating this data into what he called “the evolving higher ed infrastructure.”

James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan and a member of former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education, told educators in the audience that their universities would have “to consider entirely new paradigms” to survive and stay relevant in the future. He was particularly complimentary of the adaptability of the for-profit college sector.

“It has established a very effective model with not simply how to finance but to provide quality higher education opportunities to working adults,” Duderstadt said. “That model, I think, will more and more characterize the future of higher education. It will be a significant challenge to those of our institutions which are heavily moored on a campus to provide those lifelong learning opportunities. My own sense is that we’re going to have to do it not by bringing our students back to our campuses but by emulating the secrets of the success of the University of Phoenix and using technology in order to provide learning and skills for people in the workplace with family responsibilities.”

John L. King, vice provost for academic information at the University of Michigan, echoed his colleague’s praise of the adaptability of for-profit institutions. He added that these institutions are pushing change in the sector and that “more traditional institutions,” like his own, are following “at a distance.” For instance, he argued that “traditional institutions” are somewhat resistant to peer learning and open-source learning resources, primarily because of the influence of faculty who wish to preserve what he called their “guild status."

The panelists from institutions abroad discussed their shared experiences with growing pains, highlighting how the complications of educating “global citizens” have influenced their decision making. They noted, too, that – as their institutions evolve – while the “American model” of higher education is still envied, they are selective in which aspects of it they attempt to emulate.

For example, Kiyofumi Kawaguchi, chancellor of Ritsumeikan University, in Kyoto, Japan, noted that institutions in his country have only relatively recently introduced “American-style” law schools. Previously, no specific postgraduate study was required of the country’s lawyers. This “dramatic change,” he argued, highlights the importance of the place of humanities and social sciences in global higher education -- a concept he suggested was American.

Conversely, Koïchiro Matsuura, former director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), argued that American institutions – at least those with outposts abroad – are not very effective at educating students about local issues of concern. The fellow panelists seemed to agree that American institutions and those abroad are still learning how best to work together to inform their students about one another and about “global issues” such as the environment and diplomacy. Concerns about the number of people the “American model” excludes were also prevalent among the foreign panelists.

“We’re inadequately serving even our own existing population right now, so the American model is beginning to creak and groan, and it may not be the model that the rest of the world wants to emulate,” Duderstadt admitted.

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