Scaling walls and building bridges in higher education

Elite universities create walls to exclude disadvantaged communities by applying a decontextualised version of academic merit which assumes that all students regardless of social background have an equal chance to compete. Against this backdrop there is a need to break the link between access and social advantage by developing admissions criteria that identify potential.

This was the view of Professor Rajani Naidoo, director of the International Centre for Higher Education Management, University of Bath, United Kingdom, who spoke at the "Contribution of Business Schools and Higher Education to Inclusive Development" conference, held from 19-20 April at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

The international conference focused on the potential of business schools and higher education to contribute towards inclusive development through research, teaching, community engagement and leadership, and diversity and equality in higher education through social inclusiveness of the student body, and diversity among academics.


Naidoo said the global environment was confronted with deepening social, economic, cultural and political fractures exemplified by an exponential growth in inequality and the return of absolute poverty, growing fault lines between those with secure employment and those who work in precarious conditions, migration caused by war and poverty, undermined social solidarity, rising xenophobia and the urgent need to protect the planet.

These catastrophes reflected a convergence of economic, political and social factors and could only be solved by global collaboration, she said.

But while universities were both nationally anchored and globally-linked and, as such, were well-positioned to forge transnational synergies, these institutions had at the same time to contend with competition as the only route to excellence, and the impact of rising forms of unhealthy nationalism.

Naidoo said both competition and nationalism created walls which prevented universities from coming together to solve global problems. Regulated competition in higher education had increased access but the indiscriminate deployment of different types of competition in all areas of higher education had caused adverse consequences.

Geopolitical rivalry

Higher education had been positioned at the centre of geopolitical rivalry, Naidoo said. It is seen as an engine to enhance the country’s competitive edge in the global economy and amidst rising geopolitical tensions, universities are now more directly deployed in a race for influence through which powerful groups in influential nations assert their own preferred political, economic and cultural models.

“The contribution of universities to global wellbeing does not need to detract from national responsibilities. A balance can be sought so that global and national wellbeing can be enhanced,” she said.

There had been attempts to undermine universities which have opened doors to those who are marginalised and which call truth to those in power, Naidoo said.

Citing two examples, she said in the United States, states were asking universities to change their curriculum if they wanted to receive state funding, and in Hungary, the government has threatened to close the Central European University which has a very high research reputation and has opened its doors to refugees.

According to Naidoo, even prestigious university partnerships were “building walls” to exclude students from disadvantaged social groups.

“Universities apply a decontextualised form of academic merit which assumes that all students regardless of social background have the same opportunity to compete,” she said.

Privileging research

In the UK, government-sponsored excellence contests like the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework interact with rankings to privilege research and reward fast graduation and high earnings, she said.

This works against widening participation because disadvantaged students take time away from research and have uneven graduation and employment rates.

“The same competition mechanisms penalise institutions that absorb students from disadvantaged communities. There is no status or monetary reward for the value that such institutions add. This is a competition that is always rigged towards the elite,” she said.

Research by Riyad Shahjahan and Clara Morgan have shown that this dynamic also applies between countries. International organisations like the OECD and the World Bank create false spaces of equivalence across countries with very different political and economic contexts.

“Such contexts are delocalised and depoliticised so that they can be presented as legitimate comparative measures. Peripheral nations and universities thus have to mimic dominant countries even when they have no chance of winning,” she said. Such a situation leads to combined and unequal development of higher education worldwide as well-resourced universities in poor countries become intimately connected to global power nodes.

The richest countries in the world have rising numbers of poor institutions which recruit the most disadvantaged students and which are detached from power, she said.

Maintaining inequality

Citing Manuel Castells, she said that rather than gaining access to powerful forms of knowledge, large numbers of students across the world receive an education which stunts innovative capacities and maintains inequality.

According to Naidoo, it is now more difficult for universities to develop global curricula that engage students in critical thinking. Research by Martha Nussbaum, the Harvard-trained philosopher, has indicated that the perception of higher education as a lever for employment has created instrumental reasoning leading to growing numbers of young people who are unable to empathise with the suffering of others and who are not equipped to respond to the most serious threats that democracy faces.

Naidoo said Western dominance and inequality in resources often leads to international partnerships eroding, rather than integrating, local knowledge.

According to Naidoo, universities need to build what Veronica Hope Hailey, dean of the School of the Management at the University of Bath, has called ‘trust-worthy’ relationships. Rather than perceiving multi-polarity as a threat, we can see this as an opportunity to learn from important initiatives elsewhere, said Naidoo.

New models of success

“We need to revise our perceptions that the US and the UK are the only successful models of higher education and are universally applicable. This is a myth created by focusing only on the successes of the most elite research universities in such systems. There is much to be proud of in our systems but we also need to acknowledge the major problems of such highly stratified sectors,” she said.

Rather than a complete onslaught of the competition, there was a need to understand where competition is useful, who gains and who loses, and what problems that competition cannot solve, said Naidoo.

The global partnership needs to develop more contextualised selection mechanisms to break the link between access, excellence and social advantage so that students are not automatically penalised by social background, she said.

Governments should be urged to respect and reward the mass institutions that take on the most disadvantaged students, especially in countries undergoing transformation. World-class universities should be tasked with the responsibility of national and global capacity building, she said.

There was also a need to develop curricula that encouraged lifelong learning, critical thinking and exposure to shared global challenges through, for example, analysis of sustainability goals and principles, many of which were embedded in liberal, elite higher education.

Shattered promises

“The challenge for us is to implement [them] in a new era where the majority of students live precarious lives, have to pay for it and are physically exhausted and time-poor, and many simply do not believe in the promises of higher education,” she said.

Naidoo said it was important for leaders to develop global platforms to provide models that will predicate new ways of reimagining our shared future.

The prioritisation of research for profit where corporations have claims that come before the global good has to be balanced and research which includes the important social, political and cultural functions of higher education should be reinstated, she said.

“Even more fundamental is how we use research to define higher education's contribution to the development of world societies. We are as always in danger of prioritising economic growth as an end in itself,” she said, adding that the university’s role in human capital development should be balanced with its contribution to democracy and peace,