Carlos Felipe Escobar Roa. At the beginning of the 16th century some scholars predicted the disappearance of the university. The reason? The invention of Gutenberg’s press.
Worldwide, political regimes have undermined universities and their autonomy. Wars have eroded many of our institutions, leading to an academic exodus, which has been difficult for some countries but pretty convenient for others. But from these and many more difficult situations, universities have re-emerged – often strengthened and improved and better institutions. This version of events presents the university as a great hero, as part of the great story of humankind. It tells a story that is well supported by examples, achievements and academic research.
But there are other versions and voices that are less easy to listen to. Some call us to action and to reform. For instance: the call to provide good-quality free education for all because higher education is a good investment for a country, and the call for access to be guaranteed for all. Many poor and developing countries, like mine –Colombia – face greater challenges than rich countries. These are countries with high drop-out rates, which are blamed on poor, old-fashioned academic practices and lack of proper financial and psycho-social support. The young demand quality in everything, from academic resources to teaching. They are concerned that there is not much difference in the salaries of graduates and those who did not go to university. Academic research has shown a decreasing private rate of return in higher education.
Their families are also concerned – about the money they spend in taxes to support universities and esoteric research they cannot see the point of, while there are not enough places at universities for their children. They are worried about their money being wasted and about diminishing graduate salaries that do not seem sufficient to pay off the loans people have taken out to get them through university. They are also worried about universities' role in creating world citizens who, frequently, leave their communities, families and countries to fulfil other nations’ dreams. This concern about brain drain is very real; that the best graduates will move abroad to meet rich nations' needs while local problems are dealt with by less qualified people.
Many older people are worried that what students are learning does not equate to compassion or any real concern for other people's suffering and needs. They also seek reforms to the system. Entrepreneurs and industry tell a different story. They say that universities are too distant from them and not relevant to the commercial world. They also say they have to develop workplace teaching and learning programmes to meet the knowledge and skills gaps our professionals have when facing real-world situations. In extreme cases, some have created corporate universities to deal with these issues.
Governments tell yet another story about the funding difficulties they face. They argue that higher education delivers private as well as public benefits and that those who go through the university system reap an individual advantage that justifies them sharing some of the costs involved. Governments also argue that the public higher education system is inefficient and that universities do not adequately support regional and national development. They are also worried about access and feel that this means new, private players should be allowed to compete for students. They are concerned too about quality issues. They want world-class universities.
Universities also have concerns about the kind of students they are dealing with due to inadequate secondary schooling. They are worried about decreasing funding, about ebbing autonomy and about generic academic standards that do not acknowledge different universities' varying social and cultural contexts. They are worried about the lack of regulation and control over new, more profit-oriented higher education providers. These private institutions say they are filling a need that others are not addressing and boosting access to higher education. They too seek reforms. But perhaps the most important voice is that of those people who do not seem to have one – the 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty across the world, who do not even fully understand what universities are and do not aspire to attend one. They want university research to address their needs and problems.
The need for reform
So many different voices, but all agreeing on the need for reform. Yet talk of reform seems to incite arguments and protests. Why is it so difficult to agree on the reforms we need? Perhaps it is because we all focus on our own needs and on the need for others to change. Perhaps we do not listen carefully enough to other people's voices. So perhaps we should start by recognising that no one person knows the whole truth, that all of us know some element of the truth. That we need to recognise one another's interests, to recognise progress made by governments and the potential of the young, and not only focus on the negative. We need to recognise and appreciate the tireless work done by universities around the world. Most of us are trying to meet the responsibilities society has put on our shoulders. Most of us are trying to do a little better every day, even within the financial constraints we face and an atmosphere of increasing competition.
We need to recognise that families want their children to succeed, but also to be good citizens. However, mutual recognition and appreciation will not be enough. We need to share what has worked and what has not worked, in our efforts to build better higher education systems and better universities. Organisations like the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP) give us the opportunity to share our knowledge, experiences, successes, failures and concerns.
No silver bullets
Perhaps we need to agree that there are no silver bullets in higher education. All solutions need to fit our particular regional and national diversity. Perhaps there is not a better higher education system or a better kind of university. Perhaps we should talk not only about world-class universities and rankings. Perhaps we should start to talk about regional, national and local rankings. Perhaps we need to build more bridges between higher education, peace, human development and economic development.
I am confident that the next generation will tell a story about our generation's mission for the university – one where knowledge was all about human development, equality and quality of life.
* Dr Carlos Felipe Escobar Roa is rector of the Universidad del Bosque in Colombia. This is an edited extract from his speech, “Voices of Reform in Higher Education”, made at the recent International Association of University Presidents semi-annual meeting in Bogotá, Colombia.