World higher education in a more unstable environment

In a CGHE working paper published today, Professor Simon Marginson from the University of Oxford considers the state of higher education and research amid the present condition of national/global disequilibria – including the rise of populism and destabilisation of politics in some countries, tensions over migration, the Hungarian government’s assault on Central European University and Donald Trump’s attacks on universities and climate science.

The paper looks at a number of recent factors which have affected universities. Some trends like the tremendous growth in participation in higher education worldwide and the equally rapid growth in investment in R&D indicate progress and reasons for optimism. Yet the context of higher education is more unstable and troubled than such developments suggest. Professor Marginson notes that despite their central position in society, universities operate in circumstances only partly of their own making. In Europe and English-speaking countries, the downsides of economic globalisation have become more obvious and political populism has introduced a new and capricious element into the policy setting.

Other trends such as marketisation, hyper competition and the constraints of managed performance in the public sector have also negatively affected universities. Managed performance forces research down more predictable tracks. Social access to elite universities has become harder to achieve, while the difference between participation in elite and other universities – in terms of the status and the value of the respective degrees – has become more ‘stretched’. At the same time, it has become more necessary to have some kind of higher education and the social position of young people who do not attend university has worsened.

Professor Marginson considers the implications of these and other developments for research and scholarship in higher education studies. Most mainstream discussion of ‘internationalisation’ treats global phenomena as marginal to nations. Describing this as reflecting ‘methodological nationalism’, he argues that it is out of step with the way the world research system actually works. Knowledge crosses borders freely and researchers everywhere want to work with those at the cutting edge, wherever they are from. Professor Marginson states that cultural cosmopolitanism is central to higher education. At the same time, some global analysis, which fosters loose claims about the declining power of nation-states, in a world in which they remain a strong presence in higher education and other sectors, needs to be critically rethought.

Professor Marginson’s paper argues that the city, especially (but not only) the global city, should be seen as a key unit of analysis in research; and that inequality, and its relationship to globalisation, requires further consideration. Globalisation is fostering greater equality between nations but greater inequality within many of them. Finally, he argues that we should move beyond neo-liberalism in defining what higher education is and what it does. The effects of higher education are much more than the augmented earnings of graduates.

Networked higher education systems produce a huge range of common benefits on the global as well as national/local scales, yet universities are often measured solely in terms of local individual employment outcomes and consumer satisfaction. Professor Marginson concludes by discussing the development of new research tools and data that can unpack the individual and collective outcomes of higher education, so as to capture its social and economic effects on a broader basis.