Higher education faces a more fragile and contested future




What is higher education? In a world of ever-emerging difference, the core has scarcely changed in 3,000 years, across almost every variation of time, place and culture: the cultural formation of persons.

The methods of person formation have also been largely constant. The self-forming student is immersed in knowledge, guided by teachers. Everywhere the same technologies have been used: knowledge expressed in texts, on paper and now on screen, classroom organisation, educational assessment, student selection by examination, and certification.

The different forms of higher education have another common feature: a dual spatiality. Higher education typically combines a place-bound materiality and identity, with universalising knowledge and the mobility of ideas and persons.

Hence when the one big change happened in 1810, it eventually went everywhere. That was Wilhelm von Humboldt’s plan for the University of Berlin, which added intellectual inquiry and research to the intrinsic core of learning and knowledge.

This changed knowledge. Scholarship moved from received dogma to something evolving and open to scepticism. Yet higher education was still cultural formation. In fact, the Humboldtian reform strengthened learning through immersion in knowledge.

For a long time United States higher education was way ahead and in the 1960s and 1970s three US scholars at the University of California developed a new way of thinking about higher education. Clark Kerr, Martin Trow and Bob Clark created higher education research. They saw higher education as a distinctive domain for inquiry with dynamics that cannot be exhaustively explained using theories and methods developed for other fields.

This is the key insight into reality. Higher education has its own dynamics. We are still discovering those dynamics, while fending off policy constructs that don’t understand the sector.

Three great transformations

Bob Clark’s work was followed by three great transformations affecting higher education: the social transformation that is massification; the policy transformation that is neo-liberalism; and the ontological transformation of globalisation.

For more than 25 years, states were liberal capitalist supporters of internationalisation in higher education and science. Anglophone states wanted to expand Anglophone cultural influence in missionary fashion, with the spread of English and integration of non-Western countries into Euro-American cultural norms.

Student mobility would encourage trade and cosmopolitan cultural inclusion would optimise market reach. We now know the support of states for liberal capitalist internationalisation was of its time, not a permanent condition, but it facilitated a great flourishing of cross-border higher education.

Anglophone style education and science became globally distributed, though on a plural not homogenous basis, without integrating non-Western countries into the US hegemony.

The result is a global contradiction, a deep tension between the spread of post-colonial university capacity and the continued colonial models of institution and the organisation of knowledge.

Journals, bibliometrics and Times Higher Education and QS are still patterned by the 1990 US cultural hegemony. English is the only language of universal global science. Rankings are grounded in the ideal Anglophone science university. The vast bulk of human knowledge is excluded as merely local knowledge.

‘Internationalisation’ in higher education in many countries is invasive Western internationalisation and a crisis of purpose and identity.

At first sight, world higher education seems to be more Americanised than in the time of Kerr, Trow and Clark, but in reality it is a different world, one moving rapidly towards somewhere else. It is a world where the future of higher education is more fragile and contested. Three deep-seated dilemmas are now apparent.

We proclaim that higher education has never been so important. Yet its position is not ‘strong and stable’. The United Kingdom government treats it as a whipping horse with little pushback outside the sector, and no concern about the plunging unit of resource.

Higher education is stronger in Nordic Europe and especially in East Asia, which might be its bastion in future. But it seems brittle in many places. Violations of autonomy and academic freedom multiply – government interventions in curricula, research cooperation and student mobility. If Donald Trump wins the US elections, what’s happened in Florida will spread across the US and science will be in trouble.

The political flak is a symptom of deeper problems that have evolved out of massification, neo-liberalism and globalisation. Left unaddressed, these problems have festered, prompting urgent questions.

The failure of equality of opportunity

First: Is equality of opportunity impossible? Sixty years ago schooling and higher education were positioned by education researchers and policy-makers as sectors that could transform society into an egalitarian meritocracy.

The ideal was the equal distribution, across all social categories, of participation, student achievement, educational outcomes and graduate careers, so that education would function as the great articulator and redistributor, and people’s starting positions would no longer determine their lives.

That mission soaked into social science and in some form has shaped popular understandings everywhere. All societies expect progress on equal opportunity, social mobility and equity, though many also tolerate high institutional stratification. But we must face the fact that the long struggle to lift social equality of opportunity through education has failed, in all countries, whether high capitalist, social democratic and socialist.

While we bring great benefits to many individuals, including those who are first in their families in higher education, we now know that our work alone cannot remake the social aggregates. Reform of higher education alone is never sufficient to drive social equalisation, and massification has made this harder to achieve.

The failure of equality of opportunity is readily understood in countries with high stratification, or financial barriers, or discrimination, or where families invest privately to improve their odds, as with independent schooling in the UK. The competitive structures fostered by neo-liberal reform have also favoured families best equipped to compete.

But the failure to advance social equality through education is apparent also in Nordic countries where systems are less stratified, there is free access to institutions of high quality, and a social consensus about equality and solidarity.

Nordic states work hard on equality in education but have been unable to leverage that to secure greater overall equality in society, though they have been able to hold the line. Nordic family background continues to govern access to high demand law and medicine and shape unequal outcomes at work.

The problem is exacerbated by a secular trend associated with massification. Expansion of participation improves equity as inclusion, which is certainly worthwhile, but not distributive equity in social outcomes. All else being equal, as total participation expands, student numbers in elite universities expand at a slower than average rate, increasing scarcity, and stretching the vertical calibration of degree power.

Raising the stakes and narrowing the gate intensifies competition for places at the top, and that inexorably favours middle-class families best equipped to win.

Yet society still widely believes that higher education, not social background or guanxi, determines career outcomes; that we should be judged by the extent of the social mobility achieved; and no institution should be unrepresentative of society. This bar is too high. We have oversold our capacity to deliver mobility and justice through our own practices alone.

Disappointed expectations undermine public support for higher education, which at any moment can flip over into perceptions of higher education as a conspiracy of the elite. Then disappointed expectations merge with the resentments of those excluded altogether.

Segmentation between people with and without higher education is readily mobilised in populist political campaigns. Now that participation has expanded to half of the population but not everyone, the stratification and exclusion effects of higher education are more visible on a large scale than either its contribution to the earning power of graduates, which tends to fall on average as massification advances, or its potentials to lift opportunity and mobility.

So that is the first dilemma. Longstanding, a trap partly of our own making, and becoming more difficult as massification has advanced. What can be done? First, we continue to strive for practical equality at every stage, or higher education becomes more socially unequal, blighting lives and emptying out its popular legitimacy, as is happening in the US.

Second, we scale back expectations by shifting the attention of research to sectors that more directly determine social equality – such as wages and pay scales, and government tax and spend.

What is the purpose of higher education?

The second question is: Is higher education cultural or economic? There is no doubt about the core of higher education. Cultural formation through immersion in knowledge has long sustained the broad development of students, as individuals and in social relations, with highpoints in Confucian self-cultivation and the Bildung idea.

Cultural formation has been annexed in a flexible manner to many extrinsic purposes. Where the programme has been vocational, the same methods of cultural formation have been used. Without changing purpose or methods, the intrinsic core is very adaptable. Higher education and knowledge have a chameleon-like quality, one clue to the continuance of the university form. But there are limits to this.

Studies repeatedly show that students have multiple objectives. They want personal growth and experience, and immersion in disciplinary knowledge, and graduate jobs. It’s not either-or. But the objectives are still distinct. Higher education is more like schooling than like work. Agentic positioning, goals, values, knowledges, skills and required behaviours are different. The best training in skills and employability is in the job.

Seeing the heterogeneity of higher education and work is the first step to improving the transitions and combinations between them.

Intrinsic learning in higher education is foundational to graduate work. It augments student agency and provides specific knowledges and pre-vocational skills that underpin on-the-job learning. Direct vocational preparation in work experience or internship, and job-search skills, are add-ons to intrinsic learning.

Even in many occupational courses, transition to the workplace is challenging and takes time. Higher education and work are loosely coupled. The relation between higher education and work is not a linear flow. To press education and work into one process – either by treating them as essentially the same, or subordinating one to the other – is to violate either work or higher education.

However, the pure human capital vision, education focused solely on productivity and employability, now dominates policy and public debate in many countries concerned about graduate under-employment.

The focus on narrow employability carries moral authority. The right to work is widely felt, as it should be. So governments more confidently press for the remaking of higher education by pushing the sphere of work back into education and measuring education in vocational economic terms, installing extrinsic job preparation inside the intrinsic core of higher education. This is a second trap.

The bottom line is that neo-liberal policy does not see higher education as personal formation in knowledge as optimal for productivity and growth. If government set out today to design a higher education system focused on employable graduates, it would not use cultural formation, knowledge organised in academic disciplines, and the teaching-research nexus.

I think it is only a matter of time before a new model of ‘job-ready’ education is proposed that unwinds the cultural core, promising greater efficiency and job security, radically stripping back autonomous self-formation in knowledge, and deconstructing the foundations of university organisation and academic work.

So that is the second dilemma. It arose in the last decade or so as neo-liberal policy obtained a greater hold, but higher education is partly complicit. What can be done? It is not enough to respond by saying, not culture versus economics, culture and economics. Matters have gone too far. The singular economic framework is rapidly marginalising cultural formation.

We need to make the case for cultural formation. This means coming out hard and publicly in support of the role of knowledge and the benefits of student engagement in it. If we don’t advocate knowledge and cultural formation, and the shared empowerment and democratic agency they bring, no one else will.

Internationalisation vs nationalism

The third question is: Is higher education national or global? Until 2018 or thereabouts many rightly said ‘both’. There is now pressure on institutions and people in Euro-America to choose, to maintain their position in the national scale, where higher education is housed and funded, by disavowing the global. This weakens learning, research and the autonomy of the sector.

Globalisation enabled the sector to explore its dual spatiality and mobility in many ways. Millions of people have used cross-border mobility to create possibilities and build their individual agency. Global science evolved as a bottom-up network outside national control.

Governments could alter the participation of ‘their’ institutions, with difficulty, but not the network itself. Nor could they lock out global science, which is an essential resource for governments and industry. Anglophone institutions, especially, expanded their strategic freedoms in cross-border partnerships, university consortia, offshore branches and online education which, like communication between scientists, could not be nationally regulated.

Whole systems combined action in the national and global scales to enhance outcomes in both. The US used relatively open borders to draw global talent into its universities. The UK and Australia worked the market in cross-border education to build resources, deepening research capacity and thereby enhancing global reputation, a virtuous circle that rotated through the scales.

China pursued a national-global synergy, supported by growing state investment, with spectacular results. International collaboration, especially into the US, helped build national infrastructure while taking China-based researchers to the cutting edge. State funding drew back diasporic scientists.

Compared to the Anglophone nations there is less outreach and more national capacity building, but China now leads the world in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Again, global and national actions strengthened the other in a circular process.

University leaders and scientists understand the global as a distinctive zone of activity. So do mobile students, and educators working to form global citizens. However, governments see cross-border activity through the lens of methodological nationalism, the belief that national state and society are the natural form of the world.

When internationalisation is seen merely as a national arms race in innovation, the distinctive global space becomes marginalised and global phenomena are seen solely as outgrowths of nations and determined by them.

As long as Pax Americana allowed Euro-American states to focus on economic goals rather than national order and security, and states and economic elites drew material benefits from globalisation, they were in-principle supporters of liberal capitalist internationalisation, and higher education was free to practise the national and global at the same time.

This began to change about 2010. The growth of world trade and offshoring slowed and supply chains shortened. By the mid-2010s nation-bound thinking, economic protectionism, nativism and opposition to migration were all increasing.

In 2016 Brexit and Trump rammed the point home. At the same time the rise of China and other non-Western powers was weakening US global hegemony. This fostered disillusionment in the US with liberal openness, and fed popular anxieties about loss of status across the Euro-American world.

There was no evident decline in the momentum of globalisation in higher education. However, a fault line between national polities and globally engaged universities had opened up. It was just a matter of time before global links in higher education were problematised by policy.

By the early 2020s this was apparent across Euro-America. Dutch and Danish politicians wanted to cap incoming students. In 2023 the UK, Canada and Australia all announced new limitations on student mobility, forgoing part of the revenue, offering various pretexts, but in fact responding to migration sensitivity.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which forced the mobility of many Ukrainian faculty and students, also isolated Russian universities from all global dealings. The Putin regime routinely labels its critics as ‘foreign agents’.

The most significant regression has been the US decoupling from China in global science. The US-China relationship is the largest collaborative pairing in the science system. In 2018 the Trump government’s China Initiative, with bipartisan support, empowered federal authorities to investigate joint China-US appointments and projects.

Researchers with Chinese backgrounds were stigmatised. A survey by Jenny Lee found that 20% of US scientists of Chinese descent, and 12% of other scientists, broke ties in China after the China Initiative. Visas for Chinese doctoral students in some fields are restricted, and US university leaders discouraged from visiting China.

The number of joint US-China research papers is now falling. The US pressures other Western governments to follow. Though few research ties are in sensitive domains, states are regulating China linkages on the basis of blanket securitisation. Higher education is meant to fall into line. For its part China continues to keep all borders open, though its rhetoric is more nationally strident than before.

The shared global space crucial to higher education is being diminished. In the Anglosphere the old imperial perspective, methodological globalism with a US national centre, is fading, replaced by pure methodological nationalism and the projects of the nation and its allies, in a Hobbesian world seen as irretrievably divided and hostile.

Given that the agentic mobility of persons and knowledge is foundational to the freedom and identity of higher education, violations engendered by geopolitics and single-scale nationalism do not bode well.

The spreading securitisation of research places in jeopardy the collective science system, the combined repository of knowledge, which is crucial to addressing the climate-nature emergency. This threat to dual spatiality is a second existential crisis for higher education.

So that is the third dilemma. It was not a dilemma until recently, when the political context changed and we had to choose. What can be done? Institutions must defy methodological nationalism and maintain plural geographical scales, finding new ways to remain global by operating separately from the states that fund and regulate them. That requires courage.

We need to lift social justice and equality beyond the national and into the global. We have no framework for global justice and equality in education and knowledge. In the global scale, rights of equality are also rights of diversity.

If we are to progress a stable global justice framework based on multi-polarity without a hegemon, it will be an order grounded in he er bu tong, unity in diversity, like the European Union.

We can move this order forward in higher education and knowledge, ahead of states. We must press the major publishers and the bibliometric systems to incorporate knowledge in all languages in a multi-lingual publishing and translation regime.

Coming down the line

There are more challenges ahead. First, politics. In almost every Euro-American country, and some others, politics is nervous, faltering, destabilised by the anxiety and lost future of the climate-nature emergency, within the power vacuum created in the transition from US hegemony to a multi-polar world.

Nation-states must co-exist without a global policeman and national polities need consensus. Failure means we slide into war. Higher education is where students are prepared in social relations and formed as reflexive persons capable of social action. One way forward to more stable political systems, based on distributed agency, is education.

Second, the big one, the climate-nature emergency. Economies grounded in Anglophone liberal capital accumulation cannot solve this and are most emphatically part of the problem. Despite its traumas, the state is the only feasible point of coordination, though states will need to become better at devolving responsibilities to the local level.

In 10 years’ time we might be discussing the transformation of higher education to contribute to state-led mitigation, disaster relief and the reconstruction of social systems.

Simon Marginson is professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, director of the ESRC/RE Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE), and editor-in-chief of the journal Higher Education. This article is based on an edited version of Professor Marginson’s 2024 Burton R Clark Lecture, delivered on 15 February at the CGHE annual conference.


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