Working Paper 110
The Three Dilemmas of Higher Education: The 2024 Burton R. Clark Lecture
Published February 2024

The 2024 Burton R. Clark Lecture reviews the evolution of higher education, including three mega-trends of the last forty years (massification, neo-liberalism in higher education policy, and globalisation), the field of higher education research, the role of Burton R. Clark in the founding of that field, and the contributions of the ESRC Centre for Global Higher Education in the field in 2015-2024. It then expands on three dilemmas now confronting higher education as a whole, and the field of research. First, expectations that higher education will create greater social equality of opportunity within education, and through that weaken the determining influence of social background on career and income, are unfulfilled everywhere. Patterns of equality and mobility are affected more by remuneration in the workplace, and government tax/spend, than education. While higher education has lifted the lives of many individual students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the potential of higher education acting alone to secure aggregated redistribution has been exaggerated and the resulting disappointment is undermining social support for the sector. Second, higher education is and always has been a process of cultural formation through immersion in knowledge. The one-sided focus of economic policy in higher education on the sector’s role in the transition to work and careers (‘employability’), including the use of graduate salaries as measures of the quality or performance of higher education, jeopardises the longstanding model of higher education while again creating public expectations that it is impossible to meet. Third, higher education institutions have always had a dual spatiality, combining fixed locality and national identity with the universalising claims of knowledge and the ongoing cross-border mobility of ideas and people. However, in many Euro-American jurisdictions, national government commitment to liberal internationalisation in higher education and research has collapsed amid migration resistance due to nativism, and geo-political conflict (especially the ‘decoupling’ of U.S.-China links in science, and the war in Ukraine) and the resulting securitisation of cross-border research. Higher education institutions and persons with a strong presence in both the national and global scales are under pressure to withdraw from or compromise their global activities to retain national support. Higher education is embedded in national law, policy and funding and this pressure can scarcely be ignored but again, the character and autonomy of the education and research core are at risk.