Towards a sustainable knowledge distribution system

We have found the dialogue with colleagues in recent issues of University World News both stimulating and useful. But it has not been a debate in the sense that it identified fundamentally different perspectives – rather, different topics have been discussed.

They point out, correctly, that both local and global knowledge systems and academic institutions are filled with inequalities of all kinds that keep those at the periphery – individuals, institutions and nations – dependent in many ways on academic centres, within nations and among nations. The entrenched aspects of ‘academic capitalism’ are difficult to dislodge.

The advent of massification in the past half-century has increased the challenges facing academe everywhere. Most countries, especially in the developing world and among emerging economies, have struggled just to keep up with increasing demand for access, often in a political environment where public investment in education is a low priority. All of this is true and from our perspective, deeply problematical and unfortunate. We do not have any easy solutions.

In our articles in University World News, we have been concerned with a few modest practical solutions to contemporary challenges. We have not attempted to solve all the inequalities facing higher education globally, and we recognise that our proposals may encounter major challenges. It is worth briefly summarising our key points.

The necessity of differentiation

Massification requires differentiation. This means that there will be, in every country, post-secondary institutions with different missions and roles to serve ever more diverse student populations. The vast majority of post-secondary education institutions will have a teaching mission – and their academic staff should be rewarded for teaching and service, and should not be required to produce published research. Workloads, budgets and resources must reflect this mission.

Encouraging all post-secondary institutions to focus on research is financially unsustainable. Of course, professors at teaching-oriented universities may wish, and should be free to, undertake research and produce publications, and they even should be stimulated to produce applied science and publish about it.

The large majority of universities worldwide will necessarily have a teaching and service mission. This is as true in the rich countries as it is in emerging and developing economies. Countries will have to identify which universities will be research-intensive and which will not.

It is simply impossible for all universities to have a significant research mission. Students would not be well served and the pressure on academics would be overwhelming. Yet, because everyone wants to score well in the rankings and have the prestige of research productivity, pressure to produce research is widespread – and both unproductive and unnecessary.

The examples of China and India support our view. China has been extremely successful investing in a number of research universities – necessary for its increasingly sophisticated economy as well as the size of the country and population. It has left the rest of its tertiary education unattended for too long and the government has only recently recognised that the country has to diversify, including through the transformation of universities into universities of applied sciences.

India has, for a long time, avoided investment in top research universities and only recently has started its own version of an excellence initiative for top universities that will hopefully also result in more differentiation.

A dysfunctional knowledge system

What do these realities imply for academic publishing and the distribution of knowledge more broadly, the main topic of our previous articles? Here also differentiation is needed and should not be left to the market, but rather it should be controlled by the academic community itself, with more attention given to diversity and inclusion than the market allows.

Largely because of a combination of massification and a desire of both institutions and individuals to aspire to the perceived prestige of research productivity, the traditional knowledge system has become strained to the breaking point.

Rankings, publishing companies and other enterprises have not only led to marketisation but also made the traditional control of top institutions and top academic journals in the developed world even more dominant than already was the case.

Top academic journals, the ones that are counted by the rankers, receive an oversupply of submissions, and as a result other journals pretending to be academic have entered the market to respond to the demand for accepted articles. Academics in non-research universities feel under great pressure to do research and publish – so much so that it has overwhelmed the system.

By respecting and rewarding teaching and service, fewer professors will spend time producing marginal articles, thus reducing the number and helping to bring the publishing system back into balance.


Our main points are both simple and necessary. Without recognition of the need for institutional and individual differentiation, the knowledge distribution system will continue to be dysfunctional and ridden with inefficiencies and growing corruption. Our argument is for sustainability, recognition of reality and for honesty and quality in research.

We rest our case, with appreciation for the contributions of our colleagues and thank University World News for providing a platform for dialogue on the issue of research and academic publishing in the context of massification – and we look forward to additional contributions by others.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and founding director and Hans de Wit is professor and director, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States.