Higher education has expanded rapidly since World War II and with it, issues of diversity that affect almost every aspect of the sector - access and equity, teaching methods and how students learn, priorities in research, quality, management, social relevance and finance. However, academics have long debated the character and extent of diversity and have even asked: Is diversity a worthwhile goal? Or should differentiation be the real aim?
Lynn Meek and Dianne Davies review patterns of differentiation and diversity in the Research Report of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge, titled "Policy Dynamics in Higher Education and Research: Concepts and observations". They also look at controversial aspects of global university league tables and consider how they should be seen in the context of diversity and differentiation.
There are, Meek and Davies point out, many different types of diversity in higher education - systemic, programmatic and procedural among others. They focus on systemic diversity - the existence of distinct forms of post-secondary institutions in a country with different missions, types of instruction and qualifications, organisation, funding and relationships to government.
"One also needs to distinguish between vertical (or hierarchical) diversity based on the status of institutional types and horizontal diversity based on institutions' teaching and, to a lesser extent, research functions."
Diversity is said to satisfy a range of needs, such as increasing learner choices, opening access, matching education to the needs and abilities of individual students, and enabling institutions to select their own missions and activities. Diversity, it is argued, also responds to the pressures of a society and becomes a precondition of university freedom and autonomy.
The authors found different responses in various countries to how diversity can be achieved in the expansion of higher education.
In the US, academics assumed that diversity was an "inherent good, best achieved through market competition rather than by centralised planning".
In many European countries, governments enforced a high degree of homogeneity, while others nations such as Australia, Germany and the UK created diversity through a binary system of universities and polytechnics. This dual arrangement of theoretical and vocational studies has long-since gone in Australia and the UK, but remains in Germany and is being introduced in Finland, the Netherlands and Norway, the authors write.
The picture is further complicated by trends of globalisation, supra-national policies, the growth of private commercial higher education institutions, and the emergence of digital technologies among other factors.
"One thing that is known about diversity is that it cannot be understood in isolation from the way in which governments manage and structure higher education systems," write Meek and Davies. "The great debate over the last 30 years is whether higher education systems around the world are evolving towards integrated, unitary systems or formally differentiated systems. So far, the empirical evidence does not support the ascendancy of one trend over the other."
There are two opposing views on the development of diversity: convergence and divergence.
The former school argues that with increased emphasis on similar compliance schemes in quality assurance and accountability, with increased student mobility, the blurring of basic and applied research and the Bologna Process, all higher education institutions are assuming similar characteristics, norms and values.
The counter-argument says that institutions in competition with one another will seek a niche market and differentiate themselves from their competitors. Governments take an interest in diversity because they find it difficult to fund all institutions on the same basis.
Research and different knowledge regimes are also potentially powerful differentiators of higher education systems, write Meek and Davies:
"No country can afford to fund all of its universities as world-class research universities. But in integrated, unitary systems, there is a tendency for non-research universities to emulate research-intensive institutions." However, because of a shortage of resources, this leads to second-rate imitations. Emulation also diverts institutions away from "engaging in extensive programmatic diversity which appears imperative for mass higher education".
The authors say the important question is how to foster diversity by preventing institutions from converging on some preconceived 'gold standard' of what proper higher education is. Then they add: "But how this is to be accomplished is not at all clear."
Nations will attempt to structure their higher education systems in order to produce the highest educated population at the lowest possible cost. The level of education is directly related to a nation's ability to compete in the global knowledge economy, and it needs to be flexible. Specialisation both within and between institutions is necessary to match graduates with the needs of the labour market.
"One form, if not aberration of vertical differentiation in higher education on a global scale is the current university ranking craze," note Meek and Davies. This "obsession" is driven by complex factors and is coupled with the notion of world-class universities. "Basically, as the global competition of the knowledge economy heats up, nations are concerned that they create the best universities possible in order to maximise their competitive advantage."
All OECD member countries are preoccupied by the creation of world-class, research-intensive universities, and many developing nations are realising that they need at least one. These institutions are distinguished by excellence in research, highly qualified staff, high levels of public and private funding and highly talented students.
While recognising the importance of these institutions to the development of knowledge economies, Meek and Davies say that many countries would be better served by creating 'world-class systems' rather than devoting scarce resources to a few institutions.
They argue that there is evidence to suggest that world-class systems of higher education are differentiated systems that address the diversity of student backgrounds and the increasing needs of society.
"Higher education institutions require a variety of missions and need to cater to a range of stakeholders. The core business of higher education will remain teaching and scholarship, and, in an increasingly complex and volatile global environment, the relevance of their activities to local communities will become all the more important."
* Professor Lynn Meek is Director of the LH Martin Institute for Educational Management at the University of Melbourne.
* Dianne Davies is a freelance researcher and editor in Australia.
Click here to download the Unesco Forum Research Report.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters