The Future of the Global University System

Part 3: Globalizing Access to Higher Education

August, 2014 

Reed College, Portland, Oregon. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2010

Reed College, Portland, Oregon, one of America’s elite, small, Liberal Arts and Science colleges. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2010

Let’s take a tour d’horizon of what seem to be the relevant pieces of the situation outlined in the preceding two Parts of this essay. Governments, either quickly or slowly, are withdrawing from public funding for post-secondary education. As a general rule, governments everywhere are operating with deficits and growing debt loads, which are becoming unsustainable, either mathematically or politically. Something has to give. If there is a cheaper way to provide post-secondary education, then this has to become an issue, even where today’s governments are dedicated to providing the service for free. A French Premier once noted famously that, ‘to govern is to choose.’ By implication, something expensive will be hardly be chosen against its cheaper alternative.

Not all parts of the existing university system will be discomfited equally as the choice against traditional post-secondary education continues to become widespread. Technical colleges, where hands-on training is important, will continue to be supported. Small, residential teaching institutions, charging high tuitions but performing both socializing and education functions for those who can afford them, will continue to exist. Some of the most famous larger institutions, which have brand-names that are prestigious, will continue to be filled and paid for by the world’s top students and by the world’s elite families. Research institutions that train only graduate students (MA and PhDs) and which derive their funding from research sources may actually increase their small numbers.

The rest will find it difficult to survive. They can either continue to provide ever-more costly (to the tuition-payer, be it parents or self-paying students) education until there is a political backlash or they may undertake drastic reforms. A quiet form of change has come with the trend toward reduction in full-time professors in favor of adjuncts hired from the local community, but this hollowing out of the professorial staff can only go so far until parents and students guess that what they think they are getting is really a cheaper substitute. In effect, the undergraduate parts of the university complexes will be subject to pressures that will reform the entire system. One ‘low-hanging fruit’ is the financial one that ties a large part of tuition costs to freed-up research time for professors, who must publish to gain tenure and promotion. Absent this dedicated time, teaching loads could increase drastically, or tuition costs decline considerably, but a core human resource mechanism in the institution would have to be jettisoned. Take your choice; one path leads to the decline in prestige attached to the institution by losing its association with certain well-published professors and the other leads to seriously diminished financial resources and institutional infrastructure.

This view suggests that the ability of universities to provide even stable access to their educational programs is likely to be threatened. So, how do we get to expanded and, by implication, more affordable access? First, we must consider what the globally accessible university system of the future might look like. Of most importance is the matter of accreditation and certification. Accreditation today is primarily a function of professional faculties, where a periodic assessment of the quality of training is made and deficiencies pointed out by outside reviewers. Losing one’s accreditation is a serious blow to a medical school or business school or the like. The implications can range from closure of a school to the degradation of the degrees issued to not much at all except to the self-esteem of the university. In a way, accreditation is much like the use of ISO designations in the business world to assure potential customers of the production integrity of the supplier. Being able to state that one’s firm is ISO9000 or ISO14000 compliant or the like is important, especially in international business. A global system modeled on these examples would keep educational quality reasonably consistent.

Certification of a credential is core to a university’s functioning. Generally, political jurisdictions have a right to designate those institutions that are ‘degree-granting’, the jurisdiction thus placing its reputation behind those institutions. This certification may be limited to the granting of certain degrees by an institution, a measure designed to contain program overlap and competition for public resources. As governments continue to back out of funding universities, it makes sense for them to also vacate the certification function, perhaps by imitating the democratization of incorporation that was accomplished in the USA in the 19th Century and spread worldwide in the 20th Century*. Allowing education providers of undergraduate programs credentialing rights as long as they meet certain standards and backing this up by an ISO-style periodic reaccreditation process should expand the number of acceptable providers, especially internet-based ones.

‘Free’ accreditation should not become a pedagogical straitjacket, but it does mean that that student is getting what he or she is paying for. In the early days of a globalized system, there will be experimentation and variations on methods, but the outcome in terms of the comparability of education should be reasonably standardized. For all of their warts, aptitude tests, such as the SAT, GRE, GMAT, or their latest titles, could be a model for roughly measuring what comes out of these varied programs and curriculum devices. This is not rocket science, at the saying goes, and the use of standards like ISO or outcome testing are to a networked education system what class times, credits and final exams are to the existing university-as-manufacturing-facility model.

Whether it is electronic journalism, music, entertainment and books, the challenge to anyone wishing to provide global university education is how to monetize it. Providing a valid certificate of performance is, at present, the key to this problem. On a global basis, the problem of gaining worldwide acceptance of certification for taking a course or a degree program lies in the hands of a myriad of local and national politicians. While universities may play with electronic education, it is doubtful that they will, en masse, surrender this collective monopoly without a real fight. Regardless of need, it is clear that the ‘McDonalds without a headquarters’ model of the global university system will quickly or easily go away or, more improbably, transform itself into something that has one or a few headquarters that allocate courses and credits. It will be a slow evolution, with an enormous amount of rationalizations brought into play, or it will be what seems at first to be a gradual erosion, leading to a sudden decline, but change has already started to come to one of the most conservative institutions in the global society. 

As well, the testing of different methods for access and education should produce some workable educational devices. Experimenting with global access tools, such as MOOCs, will point out the possibilities and drawbacks of different types of networking. Multimedia packages may prove to have different strengths and weaknesses, as may interactive devices like those pioneered in Khan Academy. Coursera and Udacity appear to provide online ‘regular’ university courses, though they may not be for credit, since no admission requirements are posted and the participating universities offer them for free. A platform such as BBLearn provides a framework for locally-made course materials in an electronic classroom environment. There remain, I am sure, many other different methods to be invented that may lead to the ability to include of all those in the world seriously motivated to register for post-secondary education, while recognizing that they may also be engaged in working for a living. We need to open up the door to these possibilities. No doubt, some existing universities will try these at the margins, but this move will only increase the disruptive force of electronic education.

Nobody can predict how the global university system will look in the future, but it is not hard to see that one will emerge in the great by-and-by. Consider Facebook with a billion members, Coursera and various MOOCs with their curriculum offerings, the explosion of television, first from 12 to 500 channels and now to a potentially infinite number of ‘channels’ on the internet, and either a Jobs/Bezos-like character will emerge from his or her garage or a large company comfortable with the use of information in the electronic environment will see an opportunity — and off we go. 

Copyright © 2014 James D. McNiven

Contact: j.mcniven AT



* See my earlier F&O column, The Logic of Incorporation

Related reading on Facts and Opinions, and relevant links:

The Future of the Global University System:  Part 1: Universities Without the Trappings;  Part 2: Things Fall Apart — and then Reassemble 
The Degree Bubble by Penney Kome
Convocation Address by Patrick Lane


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