Universities should be our beacons of excellence

Universities should be our beacons of excellence

Education has become increasingly inclusive in terms of gender, socioeconomic class, ethnicity and religious background. (Shutterstock)

There once was a time when David Lodge’s view that “universities are the cathedrals of the modern age. They shouldn’t have to justify their existence by utilitarian criteria” was widely shared. Rightly, and in many cases wrongly, this is no longer the case. Contemporary academia is an altogether different entity, dare I say business, than it has ever been. It is asked constantly to prove its worth in terms of its “contribution to society,” and for its value to students, who are facing ever-increasing costs for their years in higher education. In the coming years, the pressures on universities to demonstrate their utility on both levels can only be expected to intensify.

The traditional view that universities have a value regardless of their utility has been confined to the past, and the question is not whether they should exist but how they should best serve the 21st century’s fast-moving society and economy. Higher education has become part of a social landscape that is universally acknowledged as a knowledge creator and propagator, as well as being less elitist than it used to be. The proportion of young people admitted to and graduating from universities has greatly increased. Since the beginning of the millennium, the demand for higher education has more than doubled, with student numbers increasing from 100 million to 215 million, and the forecast is that, in 20 years’ time, about 400 million students will occupy university benches. The growth is global and, in Sub-Saharan Africa for example, the number of students has tripled in less than 20 years.

Education has become increasingly inclusive in terms of gender, socioeconomic class, ethnicity and religious background, which in return has compelled universities to create a learning environment that enables a more diverse community of learners to complete their studies successfully. Much of the demand is for study-abroad experience, which has risen exponentially. These very welcome developments have resulted in an exceptional crosspollination of the learning experience, from undergraduate level to the most advanced research, demonstrating the best of what globalization can offer, but not without some serious challenges.

The rise in student numbers has been the result of a change in the sociopolitical reality and pedagogical philosophy, as much as being a reflection of financial necessities. In an increasingly knowledge-based society and economy, the need for higher education has become essential. Inevitably, this development has put immense pressure on public funds in countries where higher education was once either free or highly subsidized. It has also required the introduction of courses that are less academic and more vocational in nature, and the admission of high-school graduates at various entry levels and, in the case of international students, with various language proficiencies and approaches to learning. The advantages of having a more diverse body of students, and in many cases lecturers, certainly outweigh the challenges that come with it, but universities haven’t always been adequately prepared for such a heterogeneous population of degree-seekers.

There has been a further transformative change for higher education to address: That of balancing between knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination; or in other words finding a new equilibrium between dedicating time and resources to research, and spending time transmitting that research-acquired knowledge to students. It has been a long haul with limited success and, in many cases, is unpopular among those academics whose preference is to spend their time in labs and archives and share their findings with their peers in conferences and papers, rather than do this with students and inspire them in class.

In view of the expected growth in student numbers, one response to this conundrum has been to suggest creating a clear division of labor between research-intensive, mixed research and teaching, and research-informed higher education institutions. This division of labor would enable academia to develop curricula that offer students a learning experience suited to their life, career aspirations and various academic competencies. For some students, contact hours with their tutors improve performance, while others need less personal guidance and inspiration. Regrettably, at present the majority of candidates are applying to institutions on the strength of their research prestige, even on the strength of the networks students would be able to build during their studies there, but not necessarily on the quality of their teaching or whether those universities would be able to cater for their specific needs in terms of curriculum, career aspirations and teaching methods.

In an increasingly knowledge-based society and economy, the need for higher education has become essential.

Yossi Mekelberg

Higher education is also undoubtedly a reflection of its times, and in today’s world advances in technology are playing an ever-increasing part. Information technology (IT) has made knowledge, or what might sometimes appear to be knowledge, widely available at the click of a mouse and often at a fraction of the current costs. However, IT is no silver bullet, especially not in a rapidly and constantly changing reality. For instance, in a fast-changing environment, one of the crucial skills that all graduates must acquire is critical thinking, instilled in them for life, especially in a world of easy access to vast amounts of information, much of which is based on flimsy investigation motivated by vested interests, or is anecdotally benign.

Furthermore, with the nature of career opportunities also regularly and rapidly changing, it is learning skills that will serve students most. Nevertheless, the tempting illusion, especially in times of austerity and political upheaval, that we can replace teaching by humans with technology, and replace packing hundreds of students into large classes with packing them into cyberspace, is indeed an illusion and will only limit their learning experience. Technology can be of great assistance to education and can undoubtedly enhance it, but at least in some subjects it cannot be a substitute.

The fourth industrial revolution might be upon us but, if we wish to control it and not be controlled by it, society must reinforce human interactions and universities must strengthen intellectual interactions. Universities might not be cathedral-like anymore, but they still ought to remain as beacons of excellence and springboards for the successful careers of our ever-increasing numbers of young people; and eventually be social equalizers in terms of opportunities for youth across the world, regardless of who they are and what their starting point is.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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