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Elitism takes us the wrong way

Ellen Hazelkorn

Globalisation is forcing change across all knowledge-intensive industries, creating a single world market. These developments have intensified in the global financial crisis, challenging presumptions about the ‘world order’ as countries vie with each other for a share of the global market. Higher education has not been immune.

The ongoing obsession with global rankings reflects the realisation that national pre-eminence is no longer enough. The focus on the top 100 universities out of over 17,000 institutions world-wide promulgates the ‘world-class university’ as the panacea for success in the global economy. In response, many governments are busy restructuring their higher education and research systems to reach higher up the lists. There is increasing emphasis on value for money, international benchmarking and (public) investor confidence. Some countries are investing heavily; others are financially restricted. These developments are exposing major contradictions at the heart of national and global higher education strategies and policies.

Let’s take a look at three examples. First, Unesco says there are almost 160 million higher education students enrolled worldwide today compared with only 30m in 1970. To meet this demand, one sizeable university will need to open every week. At the same time, universal access—participation by more than half of 18-to-22-year-olds—is the norm in many developed countries. These demands are putting pressure on national budgets.

Yet, when higher education is in greatest demand—and expected to provide greater benefit for society—many governments are choosing to concentrate resources in a few elite universities. They aim to (re)create the ‘Harvard here’ model where a few universities dominate in a hierarchically differentiated system. There are national versions in France, Germany, Russia, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, India, Japan, Singapore, Latvia and elsewhere. But the financial requirements of a world-class university—probably over $2 billion annually—go far beyond many national budgets.

While this type of restructuring was initially thought desirable to create what US urban studies theorist Richard Florida has called “silicon somewheres”, it has many disadvantages and may undermine national economic capacity by constraining other policy choices.

Second, higher education’s role as an indicator of national global competitiveness has magnified its significance as a beacon for investment and talent. Many countries are developing policies to attract high-achievers. Governments may attract talent from abroad, but what are they doing to nurture talent at home?

Third, there is little dispute that excellence lies at the heart of science policy, and must be a key determinant of academic quality. But the reliance of rankings on traditional academic output such as peer-reviewed articles over-emphasises the physical, life and medical sciences. National and institutional resources have flowed to these privileged disciplines, promoting segregation between research and teaching within individual universities, and between different types of institutes. Global rankings focus attention on individual institutional performance, but the world’s major global challenges require collaborative and interdisciplinary solutions and interlocking innovation systems.

What do these developments tell us about the shape of things to come? Higher education has always been competitive, but globalisation has escalated the urgency because of its impact on and implications for the ‘world order’—especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The demand for higher education and the knowledge society is accentuating the status of elite universities—and their nations. And, because no government can fund all the post-secondary education society demands, many are making the insidious connection between excellence and exclusiveness.

Powerful forces are urging a return to elite models of education and knowledge production in the belief these institutions have higher quality or more benefit for society. This is leading to growing hierarchical differentiation not only between privatised, selective, research, elite universities and public, recruiting, teaching, mass higher education institutions, education systems within nations but also between those in their respective nations. As Dutch sociologist Saskia Sassen says, there is likely to be a “savage sorting of winners and losers”.

There is little doubt higher education exists in a complex and competitive environment, where quality and excellence are essential mantra. It’s also clear that scrutiny from a wide range of stakeholders is inevitable, and institutional survival is no longer guaranteed. It is time to adopt a new paradigm. Social and economic success is not the result of a single flagship university. Rather than producing what the Lisbon Council calls “hordes of Nobel laureates or cabals of tenure and patent-bearing professors”, we should build a world-class system of diverse higher education institutions interacting with each other and the wider community.

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Ellen Hazelkorn is vice-president, director of research and enterprise, and head of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit, at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland.