The myth of the dying university

Universities are brokers and coordinators and ideas machines and leaders at a time when decision making is becoming more local

I’m struck by how often people predict the death of universities. I was at an event recently when a director of a very large education company compared universities today to the music industry in 2002: unwilling to embrace innovation, with the education equivalent of a Napster – perhaps online learning – waiting around the corner to smash the sector to pieces. The analogy of university campuses as CDs and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as MP3s is a nice marketing trick for management consultancies, but it dangerously underplays the important role of universities in their locality (more on that here).

Most recently such predictions (often found in the comments sections of online newspaper articles) have been in response to the rise of higher-level apprenticeships and government targets of creating 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. A common narrative is that ‘traditional’ degrees don’t provide workplace skills, going to university is a waste of time, and there are too many graduates. The evidence disagrees.

Such comments aren’t new. Back in 1997 Peter Drucker, the famous business and management author, predicted that

Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.

Admittedly we won’t know whether he’s right until 2027. However, I’m quietly confident we’ll see big university campuses for centuries to come. Some may close and others will expand. But ‘going to university’ – physically going to a set of buildings and a space with an identity and lots of other students and teachers from many different places and with different perspectives and ideas – is a huge draw for students.1 But the main reason I think he’s wrong is the role of universities in their cities and regions, and the importance of knowledge institutions in knowledge economies. Universities are brokers and coordinators and ideas machines and leaders at a time when decision making is becoming more local, and powers and decisions are being devolved to towns and cities and regions.

We can also look at what’s happening in the most populated countries in the world. If universities are dying, surely the most vibrant and ambitious nations would be investing their resources elsewhere? Just last week it was reported that China is opening a new university every week. India’s February 2016 budget proposes a scheme to create 20 world-class universities.

The scope and direction and strategy of higher education will shift in coming years, but universities are here to stay.

Image: “Plan of land under control of Public Wor” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  State Records SA 

  1. As an aside, a few weeks ago I was fortunate to hear a great presentation by Paul Roberts, who, in a fascinating 30 minute tour through centuries of campus planning, explained that the most competitive universities of the future will be those with a city-centre campus location, and provided a convincing case of the value of universities as physical spaces. I’ll review his book in a future post. 

The future of Chinese higher education: what we can learn from geopolitics

With the continued ‘rebalancing’ away from the coastal cities to the inland provinces, we will see investment in inland universities

I’m currently reading two excellent books that cover, in part, the future of China. The first, Inside Out India and China: Local Politics Go Global, argues that we need to understand what happens outside of Beijing and New Delhi – the politics and economics in the localities, and in particular the relationships between periphery and centre – to understand the future. A theme is the settlement of Han Chinese in areas of potential instability, or areas prioritised for growth. For example, Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province and the scene of violent uprisings in 2009, has seen dramatic expansion:

Xinjiang covers one-sixth of China – the largest province by territory. It borders seven countries and has almost 22 million inhabitants representing thirteen ethnic groups. Most residents are still rural, but the province is quickly urbanising thanks to the Han Chinese settlers who now constitute about 40 percent of the total population… Beijing has been pouring cash and people into the region… Seven new expressways and eleven new railway lines are being planned or built. The goal has been to link Xinjiang not only to central China but to Central Asia and Europe.

This is echoed in the second book, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics, described by one reviewer as ‘a good bluffer’s guide for the members of the newly elected Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committees’, and provides insight into the way geography shapes the choices of world leaders. It tells a similar story to Inside Out:

It was long said to be impossible to build a railway through the permafrost, the mountains and the valleys of Tibet. Europe’s best engineers, who had cut through the Alps, said it could not be done…. But the Chinese built it. Perhaps only they could have done. The line into the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, was opened in 2006 by the then Chinese President Hu Jintao. Now passenger and goods trains arrive from as far away as Shanghai and Beijing, four times a day, every day.

They bring with them many things, such as consumer goods from across China, computers, colour televisions and mobile phones. They bring tourists who support the local economy, they bring modernity to an ancient and impoverished land… But they have also brought several million Han Chinese settlers.

I draw from this a maxim: where you encourage migration, you direct political and economic energy.

What could this mean for higher education in China?

  1. The C9 League, regarded as the most prestigious Chinese universities, are largely based on the east coast (see image at top). With the continued ‘rebalancing’ away from the coastal cities to the inland provinces, we will see investment in inland universities, both to attract the best students and provide training and education to suit local needs, and increase local research capacity.
  2. Focus will continue on improving Chinese universities in general. We know that China leads the world in the rate of expansion of investment in higher education and innovation. In 2012, China’s total expenditure on research and development exceeded one trillion RMB – that’s almost $0.5bn per day! 1 10% of this is directed to the C9 League. Until recently, the government encouraged the brightest Chinese students to study abroad. As Chinese universities improve in quality, expect a corresponding increase in the number of the brightest Chinese students studying in China (bearing in mind that the 18- to 22-year-old population will decline by 2025).2 This pivot is symptomatic of China’s increasing confidence in the quality of its research and teaching, and a more general economic focus on innovative, knowledge-driven industries.
  3. In line with this, China will continue to increase the numbers of scholarships and fellowships to students from other countries, following in the footsteps of the extensive scholarship programmes offered by Western countries (for example, the UK has seen year-on-year growth in its Chevening and Commonwealth scholarship programmes, despite widespread government cuts). Scholarships are often regarded primarily as weapons of ‘soft power’, and it certainly helps when an international alumnus becomes president. However, scholarships also encourage the finest minds to develop their ideas in your country, they increase multiculturalism, they lead to academic collaboration, and they are a pretty sound domestic economic investment, given most of the money is spent in the region of the university.

  1. The same Nesta publication reports that in 1998, 830,000 students graduated with a higher education qualification in China. By 2012, graduate numbers hit 6.2 million, and by 2020, they are predicted to reach 10.5 million. This would account for almost a third of the world’s total, and more than the USA and EU combined. Although there are questions over the quality of education, there are longstanding efforts to improve the standard of research and socioeconomic impact of Chinese universities (such as Project 211, focused on a subset of universities). 
  2. Interestingly, China will need to sell this shift above all to parents. Traditionally parents save for their children’s education from a young age; education is sold directly to parents rather than through any state financing or loans as seen in many other countries. 

Nations, cities and universities

Bruce Katz, centennial scholar at the Brookings Institution and former Professor in Social Policy at LSE, recently wrote a blog arguing that “In 2016, Nations May Govern But Cities Rule”. He says:

the locus of problem-solving is devolving downward. Cities have become the engines of national economies and the vanguard of economic and social innovation. In 2016, devolution will accelerate, and the solutions to our toughest problems will increasingly come from local leaders, acting in close concert with institutional investors, global corporations, and higher levels of government.

His outline of new instruments, intermediaries, and institutions for problem solving is well worth a read. He makes the point that informal devolution is outpacing formal devolution, calling for ‘rapid, locally-tailored solutions that take a holistic approach to problem-solving – approaches that deploy the expertise, capacity, and resources of the public, private, and civic sectors in collaboration’.

I make a similar point in an essay published by the Government Office for Science that looks at the role of universities in future cities. Cities will tackle some problems traditionally shouldered by states. Many of these problems are interdisciplinary, and universities are ideally positioned to help provide an interdisciplinary response.

One point Katz doesn’t mention is that, although cities will indeed increasingly rule, connections with other cities becomes increasingly important. A ‘system of cities’ takes into account the different specialities of cities, the different challenges and opportunities and local knowledge and physical assets, and how cities can complement each other. The problems of the future will increasingly be tackled by cities themselves, supported by universities and a wider system of cities.

Read the Government Office for Science essay on the future of universities and cities here, and my post on systems of cities on the Government Office for Science blog here.