The Future of Higher Education

Application season always makes me wonder about the future of higher education.  The business model is hard to understand.  The costs are hideous.  The sources of funds not obvious.  And there is no way to imagine that tuition alone can prepare us — by which I mean higher education in general — for the future.  This year I had the chance to speak about these issues in China with university administrators from across the Asia-Pacific region.  It was fascinating to see how much our concerns are similar.  The implication is that we all have a lot of work to do to ensure that higher education has a sustainable future.  I gave two contributions — both of which are below.

Innovation and Sustainable Development of Universities in a Changing World

Three Perspectives

This is just a quick overview of the presentation I will make at the plenary session on 9 November.  I have noticed that my counterparts are from the United Kingdom and Continental Europe.  Therefore, I will try to draw out some of the American perspective.  I will also focus on the challenges for graduate education and the trade-offs involved in developing a truly global institution.

The central concern from the American perspective is accessibility.  We have a business model that places most of the cost of higher education on the student-as-consumer.  This business model made sense for a while insofar as most of the benefits of higher education accrued to the student as well.  Over time, however, constraints implied by cost- and productivity growth have made the burden of higher education nearly impossible for students to bear alone.  We can use technology to mitigate some of this overburdening on students, but we are going to have to do much more if we want higher education to be accessible for most students in the not-too-distant future.  Part of that effort can be focused on changing what we expect in the form of ‘students’, and so creating alternative pathways for life-long learning.  But an important part is also going to revolve around engaging other stakeholders more deeply in higher education – and particularly in sharing the financial cost.  Such developments will necessarily have to run alongside efforts to adapt the values and priorities of the institution to reflect this wider formula for inclusiveness and burden-sharing.

The development of graduate education will be particularly challenging for three reasons.  First, graduate education is more personalized and so faces tighter productivity and cost constraints; second, graduate education is very specialized and so faces greater risks in failing to meet the needs of students and stakeholders; and third, graduate education comes after the burdens of undergraduate education have already been distributed and so risks finding less support or enthusiasm within a wider community that feels it has already paid enough for higher education.  We think the solution is to focus on skills alongside substance.  In doing so, we emphasize problem-centered research rather than retreating into academic disciplines.  This problem-centered orientation presents specific methodological challenges.  Our students need to understand the logic underpinning methodology if they are going to avoid making unnecessary contradictions and they are going to have to adapt their communication to fit a wider audience if they are to ensure that their research receives the attention it deserves.  Most important, both the university and the students have to accept that graduate education should offer multiple pathways to employment.  The goal is not and cannot focus only on the reproduction of academics.  Indeed, we should embrace a model where academic researchers move in and out of other areas of activity more freely than they did in the past.

Such aspirations will need to confront the trade-offs associated with working in a global higher education environment.  At SAIS we have been working on three continents for many decades.  What we have learned is the need to balance between the consistency of what we offer in our curriculum and the advantages that we can extract from the local context.  Often this means adapting our curriculum – even our core curriculum – to reflect different perspectives or points of emphasis in different places.  We have also invested heavily in the use of technology to bring different parts of the university together and to create learning opportunities far from campus.  Here the challenge has been to balance the advantages of easy access with the importance of face-to-face engagement between professors and students, and between students from different cultures or backgrounds.  Often it has been difficult to strike these balances in a consensual manner.  We have deep traditions as an institution that at times conflict with the need for responsiveness to new students or forms of engagement.  Finding some way to bring people along within the community has been difficult at times, not least because the formula for adapting to one set of institutions is often different from the formula for adapting to the next.  This challenge is further complicated by the need to respond to competing demands from students and other stakeholders.  More often than not, the call for innovation comes from outside the institution and from different perspectives.  And as our roots on different continents have deepened, we find that the voices of stakeholders across the globe – meaning alumni, donors, and other members of the communities in which we operate – have become more self-confident and insistent.  These voices are important for us to bring into our deliberations, but the conversation across them is not always easy to manage.

The conclusion is that building sustainable institutions for higher education is a work in progress.  That sounds fairly modest, but I think it is worth underscoring how much we have learned along the way  — about the need for innovation in our national institutions, about the importance of binding ourselves more closely to our societies, and about the trade-offs involved in taking advantage of the many opportunities that are available through innovation both inside and outside our institutions and national contexts.  I look forward to learning from the experience of other participants in Nanjing University’s Second Global Vision Week and am very grateful for the chance to participate.


The Future of University Development

A Four-Part Argument

Many thanks for allowing me to share some thoughts on the future of university development.  I am particularly happy to be able to share with co-panelists from outside institutions of higher education.  My own perspective is very much from the inside.

As an insider, I look at the future of university development in two different ways.  One places the emphasis on ‘university’.  It is clear that our institutions of higher education have to evolve to meet the great changes underway in technological, society, and economics.  The other places the emphasis on ‘development’, which is university jargon for raising funds alongside those garnered from the students themselves in the form of tuition and fees.

These two perspectives may sound very different.  The argument I want to make is that they are two sides of the same coin.  Universities cannot evolve without finding resources beyond what students can offer; and universities will not succeed in drawing in resources beyond student tuition and fees if they do not have a clear vision for how they will adapt to a new technological, social, and economic environment.

This argument is true for four very simple reasons.

The first is that students cannot and should not be asked to finance the kind of investment required to transform universities in the way that higher education needs to be adapted.  The burdens on students are already great and the costs of adaptation are too high.  Moreover, pretending that ‘governments’ will fund investment in universities beyond the costs of immediate education and without the support of other stakeholders is unrealistic.  Governments have interests like any other organization; they face competing demands for resources; and the kinds of adaptations required by institutions of higher education are ubiquitous and apply to everyone else as well.  Universities should not take government funding for granted – otherwise they will find themselves standing in a long line for a dwindling supply of finances.

The second reason that ‘development’ in the jargon of universities as fundraising beyond student tuition and fees is important is that securing funds from other stakeholders is the only way that universities can safeguard their independence.  This may seem paradoxical.  The usual image of university fundraising is that this is how institutions find themselves in the grips of powerful actors from outside the academy who seek to bend scholarship from the search for truth to self-interest.  In some cases, this may be true, but I would suggest it applies to all stakeholders – including governments.  Just look at some of the budget debates that take place in state assemblies across the United States whenever the focus turns to the financing of public higher education.

More often, though, outside stakeholders are smart enough to realize that any control they might try to exercise over higher education is going to be limited.  Universities are complex institutions populated with oversized egos – I know that all too well; indeed, I am well-socialized in that environment.  Outside stakeholders may try to exercise influence on the margins of such organizations, but they are smart enough to realize that their reach is limited.  More important, that influence is limited further still as the number of outside stakeholders multiplies and any efforts they make to steer the institution cancel out.  Universities are not unlike publicly traded enterprises in that sense; share-holder activists can affect change only when their power is not diluted by other share-holders.  When universities cultivate support from outside stakeholders they make it much harder for any group to influence the pursuit of truth and easier for the university to set its own objectives.

The third reason that ‘develop’ in university-speak is important to adapting to a rapidly changing technological, social, and economic environment is that any effort to recruit stakeholders to invest in universities is necessarily forward-looking.  Universities succeed in ‘development’ – again, meaning the recruitment of funds beyond tuition and fees – only when they can offer a credible vision for the future.  Here I would underscore that governments need persuading every bit as much as other stakeholders, including foundations, corporations, philanthropists, and former students.  This is another reason it is dangerous to take government funding for granted.  Governments need to be persuaded to invest in the development of higher education (in the conventional meaning of the term) – particularly in an age of austerity.  And when universities craft a vision to persuade governments, they should also pitch that narrative to other stakeholders, if only to ensure that it is persuasive.

The fourth reason is that the persuasiveness of any vision for the future of the university is an important measure of the likelihood that vision will succeed.  Here I think we – as university insiders – need to exercise a bit of modesty.  There is an important role for blue-sky research in generating new ideas for how universities should adapt to a rapidly changing environment, but that need for adaptation is ubiquitous, it affects all major organizations in our societies, and it takes place not just through imaginative ideas but through careful implementation, collective action, and change management.  These are areas where other stakeholders beyond the university have considerable insight and experience.  Universities can only persuade these stakeholders to make an investment if they can demonstrate that they vision they have can be put into practice, that it will respond to new exigencies, and that it will meet future student demand.  By trying actively to cultivate these stakeholders, universities gain the opportunity to engage with this outside experience and to learn from the insights those other stakeholders have on the problems of adaptation that we all face.  Indeed, this engagement has value even when no additional resources are forthcoming if only because it offers the chance for universities to learn – which is another way to pursue the truth.

So my conclusion is that universities much engage with outside stakeholders including governments but also foundations, corporations, philanthropists, and former students because:

  • We cannot rely on current students to fund the future of higher education even when tuition and fees are covered by government resources;
  • We need the independence that comes from not putting all our eggs in one basket and diversifying the sources of investment for the future;
  • We draw incentives to think clearly about how the university should adapt from the requirement to engage with outside stakeholders; and,
  • We garner valuable insights on the challenges associated with continuous adaptation and change management from the experience of other large and complex organizations.

The future of development of the university can only take place through what universities call ‘development’.  The task of raising support beyond student tuition and fees is not optional; it is intrinsic to the mission of the university as an institution.


These talks were originally presented at the Second Annual Global Vision Week hosted by Nanjing University on 9 and 10 November 2019.