Doesn’t everyone want to be world class? It projects such a nice aura! Recent publications -- first by Altbach & Balán and later by Salmi -- as well as a plethora of rankings help to focus attention on the world’s most successful research universities and the characteristics that place them at the pinnacle of higher education. Institutions such at Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, Tsinghua, etc. are important producers and disseminators of knowledge as well as important incubators for marketable innovation.
It would be easy to make a case for building at least one university of this stature in every nation. But it is not feasible or necessary for everyone who pursues postsecondary study to enroll in this type of institution. Precious little attention has been given of late to what the “what else” should look like.
If a student is not being cultivated for research, what then? Many people would probably respond that a university education should provide students with the promise of a lifetime of satisfying employment that will contribute to national economic growth and prosperity. To that end, universities continue to offer programs narrowly tracked towards a specific career and (often) a specific job within a career area. The recent international economic downturn should cause us to reflect carefully on the wisdom of this approach to higher education. But realistically, what can a university do to prepare people for an increasingly complicated, interdependent, and unpredictable world?
This might be the right moment to consider recent experiments with liberal arts colleges taking place in some unexpected places. Although historically associated with US higher education, it is interesting that the University of Amsterdam has collaborated with the Free University of Amsterdam to create the liberal-arts oriented Amsterdam University College in The Netherlands and that Fudan University is developing something similar in Shanghai and that the National University of Singapore is collaborating with Yale to create a liberal arts college of their own. This type of university study (when successful) produces a different kind of “knowledge product.” The emphasis in this kind of program is on critical thinking, an ability to synthesize ideas that borrow from different disciplines, an ability to communicate effectively—skills and knowledge that can be adapted to different activities and professions. This is not to say that a great research university cannot produce this result as well, only that these results are by themselves valuable, without training for research.
Despite the rhetoric in praise of diversity in higher education it is not clear just what that diversity best encompasses. So, maybe “world-class liberal arts colleges” should be included in each national plan for higher education in addition to a world-class research university. In a recent “Views” published in Inside Higher Education, Richard Greenwald notes, “Today, no [. . . .] career ladder exists. And narrow sets of skills may not be the ticket they once were. We are witnessing a new way of working developing before our eyes. Today, breadth, cultural knowledge and sensitivity, flexibility, the ability to continually learn, grow and reinvent, technical skills, as well as drive and passion, define the road to success. And liberal arts institutions should take note, because this is exactly what we do best.”
It is time to look at higher education more broadly and emphasize that higher education needs more than world-class research universities and world-class research university “wannabe’s” that will give a country a place in the rankings. Rather we should be looking at designing programs for individuals who do not aspire to research but who will fill the public and private workforce at many levels. What these people will need is a broad spectrum of knowledge and the training to consider their world from the perspective a many disciplines. World-class liberal arts colleges could just be the answer.