Oct 2, 2008

Lifestyle - Changing world of higher education

Ramesh Thakur

For universities, the guiding slogan is “innovate or perish.”

Canada has invested much blood and treasure in Afghanistan in the heaviest commitment of combat forces since the Korean War in the 1950s. The roots of the commitment lie in the now forgotten Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the arming, training and financing of the mujahideen to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the abandonment of the country after success in the strategic goal of defeating Moscow, and the capture of Afghanistan by a radical regime espousing anti-Wester n causes that led directly to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. On the other side, “success” in Afghanistan will be determined more in the streets of Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad than in the battlegrounds of Kandahar and Kabul. Nor can the destiny of Afghanistan be delinked from the Pakistan-India rivalry to the southeast or the events in Iran and Iraq to the west.

Just like security, Canada’s prosperity too will be determined first and foremost by what happens in the world beyond its borders than who forms the government in Ottawa after the elections in a couple of weeks. The current financial meltdown, the worst crisis since the Great Depression, highlights the truth of this only too dramatically.

Thus does the world impinge on Canada. Hence the need for Canadians to grasp the main cross-currents of world affairs.

The battle over shaping that world is more a contest of ideas than a conflict over territory or struggle over resources. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, will secular democracies prevail over or succumb to radical Islamists spewing venom at Christians, Hindus and Jews alike, in the meantime killing more fellow-Muslims than non-Muslims through serial terror attacks? Should the ideology of unbridled market capitalism, fed by individual and corporate greed and unconcern for those who are pushed to the bottom of the heap, be allowed to continue unregulated, or will the Republican worldview be replaced by the Democrats’ instinct for reining in the market with modernized regulatory and surveillance instruments and social safety nets for the poor and the vulnerable?

Ideas impart vitality to a society. In the short term, groups may vanquish rivals through superior skills in warfare. The long-term success of civilisations and countries is due more often to the dynamism and vibrancy of ideas and their steady ascendancy over competing visions of the good life. A society in intellectual ferment is fertile ground for progress and advancement, provided the clash of ideas is given free play. Conversely, a society that is bereft of and represses new ideas is a society doomed to stagnation.

Universities are the marketplace of ideas. The process of transformation of large and complex societies creates social ferment, disorder, dislocation, volatility and sometimes even conflict. Universities often find themselves embattled because they are at the forefront of this struggle for social transformation.

Education and scholarship provide the terrain on which intellectually arid and stagnant societies encounter new worlds of ideas from foreign cultures. A university, as a repository of scholarship, is dedicated to teaching and research in the spirit of free and critical inquiry, tolerance of diversity and a commitment to resolution of difference of opinion through dialogue and debate. That is, to the acquisition, criticism and transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next and to being a centre of creative and innovative learning. University qualifications are the gateway to social mobility. The concomitant emphases on equitable and affordable access to quality education for all social classes and groups produced an explosion in the number of tertiary students.

In an information society and world, the comparative advantage of universities lies in their identity as custodians and managers of knowledge-based networks that give them a global mandate and reach. They are knowledge brokers with a global leveraging and networking capacity.

Owing to changes in the higher education sector, universities across the world are being forced to change from bureaucratic and risk-averse to agile and market-responsive institutions. Until the 17th-18th century, most of them were hierarchical, often governed by religious rules, subject to religious authority, and interested very largely in religious scholarship amidst an essentially feudal society. Buffeted by broader social changes, universities too have been transformed through:

Secularisation (of what is taught and how it is taught);

Democratisation (of access) and resulting expansion;

Consequences of expansion for maintaining balance between supply and demand, access and quality, resources and activities, teaching and research commitments (time, funds);

Internationalisation (of students, staff, curricula, campuses, best practice benchmarks, funding opportunities-cum-competition, etc);

“Commodification” – education as a for-profit activity and service export;

Changing student profile – where previously education and employment came together in the ideal of a career, today it is becoming commonplace to think of multiple careers and periodic skill enhancement, leading to demand for lifelong learning opportunities and modules;

Knowledge intensity – the amount of knowledge per graduating student has increased dramatically from one generation to the next;

Technology intensity in the acquisition and transmission of existing knowledge and creation of new knowledge; and

The declining relevance of distance in the provision and generation of knowledge.

Today’s students learn more per course of study than my generation ever did. Yet the shelf life of knowledge is also shorter than it used to be, which places a premium on critical analytical and problem-solving skills rather than acquired knowledge.

Any university must deal with increased demands for access to state-of-the-art scholarship for solving critical global problems; changing personal and occupational aspirations in different societies around the world; and a more competitive international marketplace. It must continue to be a leading contributor to scholarship, learning and capacity development; to access, widening participation and lifelong learning; to research and knowledge management and transfer; and to the development of workforce and skills base through professional development.

There is nothing to suggest that in the next decade there will be a significant lessening of the pace and scale of change in the university sector. All this may in turn suggest new “mix-and-match” modes of governance, operation, financing, internal structures, external relations, involving public-private partnerships in particular. The practical management import of the changes in the higher education sector is the premium it places on encouraging innovation, creativity, flexibility and entrepreneurship. In a recent speech in New Delhi, RIM co-CEO and higher education philanthropist Jim Balsillie noted that these are attributes usually associated with the private sector. Modern day universities are complex organisations operating in challenging and constantly evolving environments. As with business CEOs, one of the most critical challenges for university chief executives is change and risk management. If for professors the saying “publish or perish” still holds, for universities as for businesses the guiding slogan is “innovate or perish.”

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