With higher education "the object of high hopes, the site of rapid change and the focus of intense scrutiny", it was imperative to think creatively and share ideas about how to tackle the evolving issues faced today, Princeton University President Christopher L Eisgruber told a high-level global forum of university leaders and policy-makers held in Paris last week.
The second Princeton-Fung Global Forum on "The Future of Higher Education" was held from 9-11 April and was co-hosted by Princeton and the Fondation maison des sciences de l'homme.
The first forum was held in Shanghai last year, a project of the Fung Forum, which was created as part of a US$10 million gift to Princeton from 1970 alumnus and Hong Kong businessman William Fung. The forum is intended to enhance universities' international scholarly engagement and to inspire collaborative thinking about key global issues.
Some 250 participants - among them top government officials, university leaders, Nobel prize laureates - attended the forum in the Hotel de Ville.
"As this conference itself illustrates, higher education is globalising through networks that facilitate discussion of the challenges facing colleges and universities throughout the world," Eisgruber said.
On the agenda was the role of new technologies - notably massive open online courses or MOOCs, with Coursera co-founder and Daphne Koller among the speakers - universities in the global age, how to expand access to diverse populations, universities as agents of social change and "The Future of Undergraduate Education: Breadth or depth?"
Searching for sustainable models
In a session on models for sustainable success, moderator Matthew Bishop, US business editor and New York bureau chief of the Economist, talked about a recent survey of 900 college graduates of 20 years ago aimed at finding out if higher education had paid off. It found vast differences between the pay-offs of different degrees.
Bishop said that talking to Economist experts, more and more often he heard concerns expressed about whether graduates from certain academic fields would experience difficulties finding jobs - and finding well-paid jobs.
With the costs of attending college having soared by a factor of five over the past two decades, the entire higher education business model was now up for grabs, Bishop argued. He asked the panellists to focus on what is currently on top of the world higher education agenda.
Higher education costs topped the concerns of Cecilia Rouse, a professor of the economics of education at Princeton and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
She described a steep decrease in the public share of higher education costs in the United States, from around 44% in the 1980s to 22% in 2009. The results had been soaring tuition fees, which had placed a significantly greater economic burden on students and their families.
Caroline Hoxby, professor of economics at Stanford University, said that the rate of return for a really good education was high, and that developing nations were now investing heavily in building world-class universities.
In highly developed countries, however, university education was being looked on as a cost, on a par with rising pension and health budget costs for a rapidly-aging population. Instead, it should be looked on as an investment in the young generation that would pay back in future.
Helga Nowotny, past president of the European Research Council, or ERC, and professor emerita of social studies of science at ETH Zurich, said the state-supporting model of university funding in continental Europe was sustainable and would continue to be so - even if it was showing some signs of stress.
However, there was perhaps a need for a new model of universities.
"It might be time for Europe to re-import the model of liberal arts colleges that were exported to the US." That would allow for the cross-training between the natural sciences and the humanities that is needed for cognitive development and rounded human beings.
Had the forum been held five years ago, Nowotny continued, its focus would have been on the knowledge economy and how to build it. "Not so today. The focus has shifted to the 'skills economy', and often questions are raised about whether universities are giving students the skills they need."
"What has happened in Europe is a model of increased diversification of universities. The ERC programme of research excellence has contributed to this differentiation, by having universities across Europe work out dynamic strategic plans," said Nowotny.
Unfortunately, Nowotny said, higher education was not turning out to be the "big equalizer" it was hoped to be. For instance, a recent study had found that the average income of Harvard students' parents was US$400,000.
As higher education expands to become non-elite, it would appear, there develop new forms of elitism.
Indeed, the bigger equalising aspect of higher education in the past decade has been between industrialised and emerging countries, some of which now have higher enrolment rates in a world with 110 million students.
"Surging numbers have eclipsed precepts that universities should be bounded, autonomous communities. New social missions, the changing funding landscape, greater geographic mobility, and emerging internet capabilities have challenged the bricks and mortar of higher education," the forum backgrounder pointed out.
"The stress is evident in the struggle to balance providing public goods and the commitment to private achievement, or the tension between useful knowledge and free inquiry. The challenges of globalisation and social equity have, if anything, magnified the contradictions."
Forum participants pondered the future of universities "in this interdependent yet rivalrous world", across national divides, seeking new ideas for policies and practices that might improve opportunities for students, scholars and universities around the world.
Half the college-bound seniors do not understand fractions or decimals. Are they going to learn it in college or are they going to continue reading fiction and stories (if they can read)?
Mark Hubey on the University World News Facebook page
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