At no other time has higher education been more important
The fact is that higher education graduates earn over their lifetimes much more on average than their non-graduate peers, that their institutions have adjusted to the new realities of the workforce, even coping with COVID-imposed restrictions, and that enrolments have, with some exceptions, rebounded to pre-COVID levels.
Yet, about half of Americans have lost confidence in higher education and one can observe similar trends elsewhere – even though most critics still send their daughters and sons for post-secondary education, even when graduates from vocational education are in high demand and are well paid.
A historical view of workforce training
Universities have always been involved in what we now call workforce training. The first European university, the University of Bologna in Italy, founded in 1088, educated young men for the church, law and medicine. But it also provided what we now call liberal education (instruction in mathematics, the humanities and logic), as did the other universities founded thereafter.
Harvard University’s founders, in 1636, bemoaned the lack of educated Christian ministers and started their college, providing training in theology and also English-style general studies and soon education in other professional fields.
Later, during the American Civil War, in 1862, president Abraham Lincoln signed the Land Grant Act to “benefit the agricultural and mechanical arts”. The new public universities, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, plus a few new private institutions such as Johns Hopkins and Chicago, devoted themselves to educating the students who fuelled America’s emergence as an industrial power, all combining various kinds of liberal education with preparation for employment.
France, following Napoleon’s 1808 reforms, established the vocationally oriented and prestigious grandes écoles, which exist to this day.
When Latin America freed itself from Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century, universities were established that served professional and vocational needs.
Coming from a very different intellectual tradition, China established academies in the eighth century to provide education in the Confucian classics and later to train young men for the imperial civil service, thus providing a form of workforce training.
Research also became a key part of the higher education mission. Research universities were invented in Germany in the 19th century as Germany was emerging as a major power. The United States and Japan adapted the research university idea. Elsewhere, such as in France, the Soviet Union and China, most research was conducted in specialised institutes – and the universities were focused on education and vocational training.
Expansion in the 20th century
Thus, the modern university emerged as a powerful and highly successful institution that provided training for increasingly complex economies, scientific research that contributed to both basic knowledge and applied innovations, and, in many instances, a broad education that contributed to an understanding of society and critical thinking.
Different kinds of post-secondary institutions emerged in the 20th century to serve ever more complex economies and unprecedented numbers of students. Thus, higher education moved from a preserve of the elite to a mass enterprise increasingly seen as a necessity for social mobility and providing the knowledge needed for success. Academe moved from a small elite sector to a broad and diversified system of institutions serving many societal, economic and personal needs.
In the United States, community colleges expanded in the mid-20th century to serve as ‘open door’ institutions providing vocational (workplace) training, but at the same time some general education for students. Forty percent of American students attend community colleges.
In Europe, professional education served a similar purpose. Globally, academic systems are more successful when they are diversified, with selective research universities, mass access institutions and vocationally focused schools, often with a mix of public and private institutions.
21st century requirements
Globally, the media and governments are obsessed with ‘workforce development’ or other vocational demands. The fact is that most higher education institutions have always been involved in educating people for jobs – in the professions and elsewhere.
In general, they have combined a vocational and professional focus with broader educational goals. In that respect, the divide between research universities and professional schools is a myth. Increasingly, research universities combine the two (see, for instance, the emergence of one-year professional masters and two-year research masters and the emergence of professional doctorates next to PhDs).
Similarly, in the non-university professional education sector there is a trend toward more attention to research (expressed in the change of name to ‘universities of applied sciences’) and towards doctoral education, even calls to become research universities. And in the United States, some community colleges now offer bachelor’s degrees.
At no time has higher education been more important. Most people these days have more than one job or even more than one specialisation over the span of their careers. And with the job market changing at record speed, this almost becomes a necessity.
The current focus on artificial intelligence (AI) and its possible implications for the future of work and the professions magnifies this reality. AI, globalisation as well as other 21st century technological and other developments, will have a dramatic impact – we just do not know the direction of the coming job revolution.
What this means, among other things, is that post-secondary education needs to provide the ‘soft skills’ and broad knowledge likely to be needed for an unknown future. In other words, to do the things that it has always done, but with greater efficiency and understanding of possible future scenarios.
And this orientation should not be limited to the elite sector of higher education but should be available for everyone. A diverse system is needed, addressing different societal needs as well as the requirements of the labour force. That is particularly true for low- and middle-income countries, where post-secondary education needs to be much further diversified.
Philip G Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow, and Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow, both at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States.