The Future of Higher Education: Rhetoric, Reality and the Risks of the Market

Gitachari Srikanthan (Centre for Management Quality Research, Research Development Unit, Business Portfolio, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia)

Quality Assurance in Education

ISSN: 0968-4883

Article publication date: 1 September 2005



Srikanthan, G. (2005), "The Future of Higher Education: Rhetoric, Reality and the Risks of the Market", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 13 No. 3, pp. 251-254.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The book opens with a lofty goal from the well‐known lead author of the book, Newman himself: “We are in the midst of transformation on a scale not seen in our lifetimes […] Our purpose is not to record the change, but to influence it” (p. xiii). Coming from a person who had been a director of the Futures Project for higher education for more than 30 years in the US, the claim is enough to whet the appetite of anyone looking for new approaches to reforms in higher education. Another sentimental aspect for anyone familiar with the contributions of Newman to higher education literature for more than 30 years is the fact this is sadly his very last work[1]: he passed away within a month of publication of the book, in May 2004.

Despite being a 1,000‐year‐old institution, higher education in the 21st century is far from routine and boring. The authors consider it a demanding, exciting and risky time for colleges and universities. The demands and concerns stem from the fact that there is broad agreement within society that higher education is of great importance to the community: “It is seen as more important than it was a decade ago, more important than it has ever been” (p. 68). Part of the challenge comes from the demands of the new economy, where it is forecast that about 70 per cent of workers will be expected to be tertiary‐educated by the year 2008 (p. 155). This implies a 100 per cent increase in numbers going through higher education compared to less than 20 years ago. Apart from the sheer logistics of putting such numbers through higher education, there is also the increasing regarding public perceptions of the performance of higher education, i.e. that the skills and attitudes young people bring to their roles as workers and citizens are inadequate. While the public's confidence in higher education is basically positive, its approval rating has dropped by nearly 34 percentage points in three decades (61 per cent approval in 1966 to 27 per cent approval in 1995).

The work of higher education is not well understood, and the constituents have incomplete and incorrect impressions of its day‐to‐day responsibilities, roles, and the principles that guide the work of the academy. To achieve better rapport with their constituents, universities themselves should be effective in learning as organisations, with clarity of goals, supportive facilities, openness and receptivity to a range of information. The ultimate goal is a simple one: higher education institutions must be held in society at a higher level of esteem “than that to which corporations and perhaps even governments, are held […] as universities in manifold ways are the providers of common good” (p. 6). As organisations dedicating themselves to the subtlest levels of intellectual service to the community, the goal seems to be justifiable. But organisationally, this would require a level of transformation on a scale not seen in the lifetime of higher education. The broad aim of the authors should be to provide an overview of where effort may be best expended in looking for opportunities for change.

A mismatch between what higher education produces and what industry wants has been argued for well over 100 years. This generally represents the value system in higher education, where the explicit or implicit aim is to prepare future researchers. This does not correspond to what new students are prepared for, nor does it correspond to what either they or their future employers want. This is also at odds with the public expectation that students from higher education will “gain workplace skills along with knowledge, maturity, organisational skills, communication skills, technological competence, the ability to get along with others, and the capacity to solve problems” (p. 71). Verily, the ultimate goal for educators should be the “ creation in each academic setting of a learning‐centred climate, that maximises learning and meets the new and higher standards that society now sets” (p. 137). Unfortunately, faculty priorities do not greatly encourage the careful thinking and arduous effort that must go into restoring an integrative undergraduate curriculum. Far too many academics treat teaching as an “information‐transfer process” through “didactic” lectures. Undergraduates find it difficult to see patterns in their courses, or to relate what they learn to life. Nine out of ten college graduates reported in a national survey “that their degree was useful in getting a job but did not provide them with skills they needed to succeed in the workplace” (p. 55). “The lack of institutional response to society's need for more effective teaching, is, to a significant degree, a result of the lack of any rational way of knowing what the results of teaching are” (p. 51). Overall, the authors express a serious concern that businesses “feel that faculty have an outmoded view of teaching that has failed to keep up with advancing understanding of how to teach effectively […] [they] also feel that universities and colleges, and their faculty are hiding from meaningful measures of accountability” (p. 74).

To date, the growth of virtual education has been the most significant change in education wrought by technology. New organisational forms are emerging, such as the Open University in the UK or the University of Phoenix, US, that rely heavily on technology and challenge the hegemony of the traditional academics and the academic‐discipline oriented universities (p. 29). Public officials “expect higher education to mirror the changes taking place in the economy […] and become more flexible, adaptable, consumer‐friendly, innovative, technologically advanced, performance driven and accountable” (p. 77). While all the traditional universities have set up commercial arms for web‐based delivery with varying degrees of success, to date the impact of technology in higher education is slower than in many other fields (such as banking and telecommunications). Still it has been far more rapid than is typical for higher education. “Despite the potential gains these new concepts offer, in overall student excitement and learning, little has changed in most class rooms” (p. 55).

Governments all over the world have moved to encourage a greater level of competition among HE institutions with the assumption that it would lead to greater autonomy and responsiveness, resulting in better accountability to constituents (p. 5). “Governments tend to hope that such growing competition will improve the operational efficiency, and slow down the rapidly rising costs of higher education” (p. 2). The competition has been extended to an international arena as well, where the objective is one of attracting international students to the local or an overseas campus. The difficulty with competition lies in the narrowness of the goals that have emerged. They are not based on improving the skills and knowledge of graduates, but are rather based primarily on institutional prestige gained through revenue and recognition. The drive for prestige has also led to the distortions that have hampered the ability to meet the needs of society. One of them is inexorable mission creep, as institutions push themselves towards the status of a research university. The new climate is said to be an “arms race”, in which institutions engage in a frenetic and never‐ending search for better students, better academics, more research, prestige and – above all – the revenue to make these things possible (p. 18).

Access to higher education has become vital to full civic and economic participation in society. The future wellbeing of societies depends on access being extended to larger sections of the community. With the erosion in the value of need‐based student aid and a rapid rise in university fees, the ability of low‐income students to take advantage of access is dwindling. This is supported by national graduation figures: typically, 48 per cent of young persons from high‐income families complete their university education compared to only 7 per cent from low‐income families in the US (p. 57). Of even more concern than the level of access is the extraordinarily low rate of attainment and graduation of those students from less privileged sections of the community who do gain access. This situation is clearly a recipe for a future crisis, with implications for a serious skill shortage. Hence, along with improved access, attention to attainment is a priority to be addressed by higher education (ch. 9).

Trustworthiness of university research is a crucial foundation of the integrity of scholarship. The lure of corporate sponsorship of research cannot be allowed to supersede control over truthfulness in publication and review rights. With the emphasis on prestige through research, corporations have been enticed to become more involved with university research. Corporate gifts to university research grew by 500 per cent in the period from the mid‐1980s to the mid‐1990s in the US (p. 62). Many, citing a number of disturbing trends, question whether the integrity of universities “as a principal source of criticism about social and political trends”, is compromised by limiting “what they say so as not to offend potential donors” (p. 64).

Thus, speaking in primary school terms, “the report card” of higher education does not seem very glowing, according to Newman and his team. This is not to be dismissed as the influence of senility of (Frank Newman as) the “old man of higher education”. In fact, the reviewer would take the position that there is essentially nothing new in all of what the authors have said so far. If one looks at popular literature, from Bloom's book Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (Bloom, 1987) to the more recent National Centre for Public Policy in Higher Education (2002) report College Affordability in Jeopardy, there has been a steady, unending stream of publications that have not been very complimentary to higher education. All these issues, far from being considered problems plaguing higher education, provide the opportunity for an action plan for the ensuing “decade of opportunity”.

The authors propose a series of policy initiatives to address the issues raised. The main plank of the solutions purposed in response is around development of a “compact” between the higher education institutions and the government of increasing levels of accountability for the former in return for increased autonomy. The authors also purpose a number of policy initiatives: they centre around competitive grants for teaching and service, developing realistic equity policies, and adopting workable strategic plans. With respect, the reviewer would suggest that initiatives on these lines are in place at a number of places around the world already, and there is no evidence that they have addressed the fundamental issues on the lines raised by the authors to any great satisfactory measure. One has then to conclude, inevitably, that the malaise of higher education runs deeper than just the policy level cures and must require deeper levels of exploration for solutions.

On the whole, the reviewer was a trifle disappointed by the fact that the authors have laid more emphasis on reporting many of the disturbing trends, and do not address the main part of the title, “The Future”, very well, except fairly briefly, and in very broad terms, in the last chapters. With the stature of Newman, one hope for some new and high‐value leverage points to be identified, where future policies and practices may profitably be directed. But, the significant purpose the book seems to be to serve is as a “wake up” call to all those would tend to dismiss the negative reports on higher education as “small talk”. The reviewer hopes that if out of the work there is an increased resolve to address higher education's problems, then Newman's goal to “influence” the changes in higher education may well have borne fruit.


Newman's other books include Report on Higher Education (1971), Higher Education and American Resurgence (1985) and Choosing Quality: Reducing Conflict Between the State and the University (1987).


Bloom, A. (1987), Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.

National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education (2002), College Affordability in Jeopardy, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, San Jose, CA.

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