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International Issues Higher Education

Expansion: Hallmark of the Postwar Era, Change and Reform: Trends since the 1960s

Higher education has developed in numerous ways since the end of World War II. Throughout the world, issues such as autonomy and accountability, the impact of technology, the growing role of markets and the privatization of higher education, the role of research and teaching, various efforts toward curriculum reform, and the massive expansion that has characterized higher education systems in most countries have all played important roles in the development of higher education. Universities are international institutions, with common historical roots, and at the same time are embedded in national cultures and circumstances. It is worthwhile to examine the contemporary challenges to higher education in comparative perspective, as most issues affect academe everywhere.

Expansion: Hallmark of the Postwar Era

Postsecondary education has expanded since World War II in virtually every country in the world. The growth of postsecondary education has, in proportional terms, been more dramatic than that of primary and secondary education. Writing in 1975, Martin Trow spoke of the transition from elite to mass and then to universal higher education in the industrialized nations. While the United States enrolled some 30 percent of the relevant age cohort (18–21 year olds) in higher education in the immediate postwar period, European nations generally maintained an elite higher education system, with fewer than 5 percent of the population attending postsecondary institutions. By the 1960s many European nations educated 15 percent or more of this age group–Sweden for example, enrolled 24 percent in 1970, with France at 17 percent. At the same time, the United States increased its proportion to around 50 percent, approaching universal access. By the mid-1990s many European countries, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, enrolled around 50 percent of the relevant age group, and the proportion in the United States increased to three-quarters. While Europe and North America are now relatively stable, middle-income countries and countries in the developing world have continued to expand at a rapid rate.

In the Third World, expansion has been similarly dramatic. Building on tiny and extraordinarily elitist universities, higher education expanded rapidly in the immediate post-independence period. In India, enrollments grew from approximately 100,000 at the time of independence in 1947 to over 6.5 million in the 1990s–although India enrolls just 7 percent of the relevant age group. China enrolls a similar number, though this represents only 5 percent of its young people. China, especially, is engaged in a dramatic expansion program. Expansion in Africa has also been rapid, with the postsecondary student population growing from 21,000 in 1960 to 437,000 in 1983, but with growth stagnating in the 1990s as a result of the economic and political difficulties experienced by many sub-Saharan African countries. Recent economic difficulties in much of sub-Saharan Africa have meant that per-student expenditure has dropped, contributing to a marked deterioration in academic standards. Enrollment growth has also slowed.

Expansion is also a hallmark elsewhere in the non-Western countries. The situation is complex. In some countries, including the larger Latin American nations, the Philippines, and some others, enrollment rates have reached 30 percent or more. In most of the low-income nations, however, enrollments lag far behind. However, growth continues to be rapid in much of the Third World, with accompanying strains on budgets and facilities–and deterioration in standards. Expansion in the Third World has, in general, exceeded that in the industrialized nations, at least in proportional terms. It should be noted that there are significant variations among Third World nations–some countries maintain small and relatively elitist university systems, while others have expanded more rapidly. Among the highest rates of expansion, and now of participation, are in those newly industrialized countries such as South Korea and Taiwan.

There are many reasons for the expansion of higher education. A central cause has been the increasing complexity of modern societies and economies, which have demanded a more highly trained workforce. Almost without exception, postsecondary institutions have been called on to provide the required training. Indeed, training in many fields that had once been imparted on the job has become formalized in institutions of higher education. Whole new fields, such as computer science, have come into existence, and many of these rely on universities as a key source of research and training. Nations now developing scientific and industrial capacity, such as Korea and Taiwan, have depended on academic institutions to provide high-level training and research expertise to a greater extent than was the case during the first industrial revolution in Europe.

Not only do academic institutions provide training, they also test and provide certification for many roles and occupations in contemporary society. These roles have been central to universities from their origins in the medieval period, but have been vastly expanded in recent years. A university degree is a prerequisite for an increasing number of occupations in most societies. Indeed, it is fair to say that academic certification is necessary for most positions of power, authority, and prestige in modern societies. This places immense power in the hands of universities. Tests to gain admission to higher education are rites of passage in many societies and are important determinants of future success. Competition within academe varies from country to country, but in most cases an emphasis is also placed on high academic performance and tests in the universities. There are often further examinations to permit entry into specific professions.

The role of the university as an examining body has grown for a number of reasons. As expansion has taken place, it has been necessary to provide ever more competitive sorting mechanisms to control access to high-prestige occupations. The universities are also seen as meritocratic institutions that can be trusted to provide fair and impartial tests to measure accomplishment honestly and, therefore, determine access. When such mechanisms break down–as they did in China during the Cultural Revolution–or where they are perceived to be subject to corrupt influences–as in India–the universities are significantly weakened. The older, more informal, and often more ascriptive means of controlling access to prestigious occupations are no longer able to provide the controls needed, nor are they perceived as fair. Entirely new fields have developed where no sorting mechanisms existed, and academic institutions have frequently been called upon to provide not only training but also examination and certification.

Expansion has also occurred because the growing segments of the population of modern societies demand it. The middle classes, seeing that academic qualifications are necessary for success, demand access to higher education. Governments generally respond by increasing enrollment. When governments do not move quickly enough, private initiatives frequently establish academic institutions in order to meet the demand. In countries like India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, a majority of the students are educated in private colleges and universities. At present, there are powerful worldwide trends toward: (1) imposing user fees in the form of higher tuition charges, (2) increasingly stressing private higher education, and (3) defining education as a "private good" in economic terms. These changes are intended to reduce the cost of postsecondary education for governments, while maintaining access–although the long-term implications for the quality of, access to, and control over higher education remain unclear.

In most countries, higher education is heavily subsidized by the government, and most, if not all, academic institutions are in the public sector. While there is a growing trend toward private initiative and management sharing responsibility for education with public institutions, governments will likely continue to be central to funding postsecondary education, although the private sector is currently the major source of growth worldwide. The dramatic expansion of academic institutions in the postwar period has proved very expensive for governments and has led to a diversification of funding sources. Nonetheless, the demand for access has been an extraordinarily powerful one.

Change and Reform: Trends since the 1960s

The demands placed on institutions of higher education to accommodate larger numbers of students and to serve expanding functions has resulted in reforms in higher education in many countries. Much debate has taken place concerning higher education reform in the 1960s–and a significant amount of change did take place. It is possible to identify several important factors that contributed both to the debate and to the changes that took place. Without question, the unprecedented student unrest of the period contributed to a sense of disarray in higher education. The unrest was in part precipitated by deteriorating academic conditions that were the result of the rapid expansion. In a few instances, students demanded far-reaching reforms, although they did not always propose specific changes. Students frequently demanded an end to the rigidly hierarchical organization of the traditional European university, and major reforms were made in this respect. The chair system, which gave total power to small groups of senior professors, was modified or eliminated, and the responsibility for academic decision making was expanded in some countries to include students. At the same time, the walls of the traditional academic disciplines were broken down by various plans for interdisciplinary teaching and research.

In the 1990s the major trend in restructuring European universities has been on improving the administrative efficiency and accountability of the universities, and many of the reforms of the 1960s were modified or even eliminated. Students, for example, have less power now. In the Netherlands, a national restructuring has increased the power of administrators, reformed the governance system by reducing the power of the senior professors, greatly increased accountability, and shifted more of the financial responsibilities to the academic institutions themselves. Students have little authority in the new arrangements. While the Dutch have implemented the most dramatic reforms, similar trends can be seen in Germany, Sweden, and other countries.

In many industrialized nations structural change has been modest. In the United States, for example, despite considerable debate during the 1960s, there was very limited change in the structure or governance of higher education. Japan, which saw unrest that disrupted higher education and spawned a large number of reports on university reform, experienced virtually no basic change in its higher education system, although several new model interdisciplinary institutions were established–such as the science-oriented Tsukuba University near Tokyo. Britain, less affected by student protest and with an established plan for expansion in operation, also experienced few reforms during the 1960s, and some of the changes implemented in the 1960s have since been criticized or abandoned. In Germany, reforms in governance that gave students and junior staff a dominant position in some university functions were ruled unconstitutional by the German courts.

Many of the structural reforms of the 1960s were abandoned after a decade of experimentation, or they were replaced by administrative arrangements that emphasized accountability and efficiency. Outside authorities–including government, but in some cases business, industry, or labor organizations–have come to play a more important role in academic governance. The curricular innovations of the 1960s, as well as later decades, have proved more durable. Interdisciplinary programs and initiatives and the introduction of new fields such as gender studies have characterized changes in many countries.

Vocationalization has been an important trend in higher education change. Throughout the world there is a conviction that the university curriculum must provide relevant training for a variety of increasingly complex jobs. The traditional notion that higher education should consist of liberal, nonvocational studies for elites, or should provide a broad but unfocused curriculum, has been widely criticized for lacking "relevance." Students, worried about obtaining remunerative employment, have pressed the universities to be more focused. Employers have also demanded that the curriculum become more directly relevant to their needs. Enrollments in the social sciences and humanities, at least in the industrialized nations, have declined because these fields are not considered vocationally relevant.

Curricular vocationalism is linked to another key worldwide trend in higher education: the increasingly close relationship between universities and industry. Industrial firms have sought to ensure that the skills they need are incorporated into the curriculum. This trend also has implications for academic research, since many university-industry relationships are focused largely on research. Industries have established formal linkages and research partnerships with universities in order to obtain help with research in which they are interested. In some countries, such as Sweden, representatives of industry have been added to the governing councils of higher education institutions.

University-industry relations have become crucial for higher education in many countries. Technical arrangements with regard to patents, confidentiality of research findings, and other fiscal matters have become important. Critics have pointed out that the nature of research in higher education may be altered by these new relationships, as industrial firms are not generally interested in basic research. University-based research, which has traditionally been oriented toward basic research, may be increasingly skewed to applied and profit-making topics. There has also been some discussion of the orientation of research, particularly in fields like biotechnology, where broader public policy matters may conflict with the needs of corporations. Specific funding arrangements have also been questioned. Pressure to serve the immediate needs of society, and particularly the training and research requirements of industry, is currently a key concern for universities, one that has implications for the organization of the curriculum, the nature and scope of research, and the traditional relationship between the university and society.

Universities have traditionally claimed significant autonomy for themselves. The traditional idea of academic governance stresses autonomy, and universities have tried to insulate themselves from direct control by external agencies. However, as universities have expanded and become more expensive, there has been immense pressure by those providing funds for higher education (mainly governments) to expect accountability from universities. The conflict between autonomy and accountability has been one of the flashpoints of controversy in recent years. Without exception, autonomy has been limited, and new administrative structures have been put into place in such countries as Britain and the Netherlands to ensure greater accountability. The issue takes on different implications in different parts of the world. In the Third World, for example, traditions of autonomy have not been strong, and demands for accountability, which include both political and economic elements, are especially troublesome. In the industrialized nations accountability pressures are more fiscal in nature.

The Twenty-First Century

The university in modern society is a durable institution. It has maintained key elements of the historical models from which it evolved over many centuries, while at the same time it has successfully evolved to serve the needs of societies during a period of tremendous social change. There has been a convergence of both ideas and institutional patterns and practices in higher education throughout the world. This has been due in part to the implantation of European-style universities in the developing areas during and after the colonial era, and in part to the fact universities have been crucial in the development and internationalization of science and scholarship.

Despite remarkable institutional stability over time, universities have changed and have been subjected to immense pressures in the post–World War II period. Many of the changes chronicled here are the result of great external pressure and were instituted despite opposition from within the institutions. Some have argued that the university has lost its soul. Others have claimed that the university is irresponsible because it uses public funds and does not always conform to the direct needs of industry and government. Pressure from governmental authorities, militant students, or external constituencies have all placed great strains on academic institutions.

The period since World War II has been one of unprecedented growth–the dominant trend worldwide has been toward mass higher education. The university is at the center of the postindustrial, knowledge-based society. The problems faced by higher education are, in part, related to growth and expansion. The following issues are among those that will be of concern in the coming decade and beyond.

Access and adaption. Although in a few countries access to postsecondary education has been provided to virtually all segments of the population, in most countries a continuing unmet demand exists for higher education. Progress toward broadening the social class base of higher education has slowed (and in many industrialized countries stopped in the 1970s). With the arrival of democratic governments in eastern Europe, the reemergence of demand in western Europe, and continuing pressure for expansion in the Third World, demand for access continues, fueling an expansion of enrollments in many countries. Often, limited funds and a desire for efficient allocation of scarce postsecondary resources come into direct conflict with demands for access. In addition, demands for access by previously disenfranchised groups will continue to place great pressure on higher education. In many countries, racial, ethnic, or religious minorities play a role in shaping higher education policy.

Administration, accountability, and governance. As academic institutions become larger and more complex, there is increasing pressure for a greater degree of professional administration. At the same time, the traditional forms of academic governance are increasingly criticized–not only because they are unwieldy, but also because in large and bureaucratic institutions they are inefficient. The administration of higher education will increasingly become a profession, much as it is in the United States. Academic institutions have become complex bureaucratic structures, requiring managerial expertise to administer. Demands for accountability are growing and will cause academic institutions considerable difficulty. As academic budgets expand, there are inevitable demands to monitor and control expenditures. The appropriate level of governmental supervision of higher education remains contested terrain. The challenge will be to ensure that the traditional–and valuable–patterns of faculty control over governance and the basic academic decisions in universities are maintained in a complex and bureaucratic environment.

Research and knowledge dissemination. Research is a central part of the mission of many universities, and of the academic system in general. Contemporary knowledge-based societies depend on research, both basic and applied, for their success, and universities have traditionally been key sources of research. Decisions concerning the control and funding of research, the relationship of research to the broader curriculum and teaching, the uses made of university-based research, and other related issues will all be in contention in future years. Current debates concerning the appropriate role of industry in sponsoring, and perhaps controlling, research, and about the control of knowledge products, will help to shape the future of academic research.

The system of knowledge dissemination, including journals, books, and computer-based data systems, is rapidly changing, and many questions remain unanswered. Who should control the new data networks? How will traditional means of communication, such as journals, survive in this new climate? How will the scientific system avoid being overwhelmed by the proliferation of data? Who will pay for the costs of knowledge dissemination? In addition, the needs of peripheral scientific systems, including both the Third World and smaller academic systems in the industrialized world, have been largely ignored, but are nonetheless important.

While the technological means for rapid knowledge dissemination are available, issues of control and ownership, the appropriate use of databases, problems of maintaining quality standards in databases, and other related questions are very important. It is possible that the new technologies will lead to increased centralization rather than to wider access. It is also possible that libraries and other users of knowledge will be overwhelmed, both by the cost of obtaining new material and by the flow of knowledge. At present, academic institutions in the United States and other English-speaking nations, along with publishers and the owners of the communications networks, stand to gain. The major Western knowledge producers currently constitute a kind of cartel of information, dominating not only the creation of knowledge but also most of the major channels of distribution. Simply increasing the amount of research and creating new databases will not ensure a more equal and accessible knowledge system.

The academic profession. In most countries, the professoriate has found itself under great pressure at the turn of the twenty-first century. Demands for accountability, increased bureaucratization of institutions, fiscal constraints in many countries, and an increasingly diverse student body have all challenged the professoriate. In most industrialized nations, a combination of fiscal problems and demographic factors have led to a stagnating profession. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, demographic factors and a modest upturn in enrollments are beginning to turn surpluses into shortages. In the newly industrializing countries (NICs), the professoriate has significantly improved its status, remuneration, and working conditions. In the poorer nations, however, the situation has, if anything, become more difficult with decreasing resources and everincreasing enrollments. Overall, the professoriate will face severe problems as academic institutions change during the twenty-first century. Maintaining autonomy, academic freedom, and a commitment to the traditional goals of the university will be difficult.

In the West, it will be hard to lure the "best and brightest" into academe in a period when faculty positions are again relatively plentiful–in many fields, academic salaries have not kept pace with the private sector, and the traditional academic lifestyle has deteriorated. The pressure on the professoriate not only to teach and do research, but also to attract external grants, do consulting, and the like, is great. In Britain and Australia, for example, universities have become "cost centers," and accountability has been pushed to its logical extreme. British academics entering the profession after 1989 will no longer have tenure, but will, in the future, be periodically evaluated. In the NICs, the challenge will be to create a fully autonomous academic profession in a context in which traditions of research and academic freedom are only now developing. The difficulties faced by the poorer Third World countries are perhaps the greatest, as they struggle to maintain a viable academic culture under deteriorating conditions.

Private resources and public responsibility. In almost every country there has been a growing emphasis on increasing the role of the private sector in higher education. One of the most direct manifestations of this trend is the role of the private sector in funding and directing university research. In many countries private academic institutions have expanded, or new ones have been established. In addition, students are paying an increasing share of the cost of their education as a result of tuition and fee increases, and through loan programs.

Governments try to limit their expenditures on postsecondary education, while at the same time recognizing that the functions of universities are important. Privatization has been the primary means of achieving this broad policy goal. Inevitably, decisions concerning academic developments will move increasingly to the private sector, with the possibility that broader public goals may be ignored. Whether private interests will support the traditional functions of universities, including academic freedom, basic research, and a pattern of governance that leaves the professoriate in control, is unclear. Some of the most interesting developments in private higher education can be found in such countries as Vietnam, China, and Hungary, where private institutions have recently been established. The growth of a new for-profit private sector in the United States and elsewhere creates an entirely new sector of higher education, and private initiatives in higher education will bring a change in values and orientations. It is not clear, however, that these values will be in the long-term best interests of the university.

Diversification and stratification. While diversification–the establishing of new postsecondary institutions to meet diverse needs–is by no means an entirely unprecedented phenomenon, it is a trend that has been of primary importance, and it will continue to reshape the academic system. In recent years, the establishment of research institutions, community colleges, polytechnics, and other academic institutions designed to meet specialized needs and serve specific populations has been a primary characteristic of growth. At the same time, the academic system has become more stratified, and individuals within one sector of the system are finding it difficult to move to a different sector. There is often a high correlation between social class (and other variables) and selection to a particular sector of the system.

To some extent, the reluctance of traditional universities to change is responsible for some of the diversification. Perhaps more important, however, has been the belief that it is efficient and less expensive to establish new limited-function institutions.

One element of diversification is the inclusion of larger numbers of women and other previously disenfranchised segments of the population. Women now constitute 40 percent of the postsecondary student population worldwide–and they are now a majority in U.S. institutions. In many countries, students from lower socioeconomic groups, and racial and ethnic minorities, are entering postsecondary institutions in significant numbers. This diversification will also present challenges in the coming decades.

Economic disparities. There are substantial inequalities among the world's universities–and these inequalities will likely grow. The major universities in the industrialized nations generally have the resources to play a leading role in scientific research–though it will be increasingly expensive to keep up with the expansion of knowledge. Universities in much of the Third World, however, simply cannot cope with the continuing pressure for increased enrollments, particularly when combined with budgetary constraints and, in some cases, fiscal disasters. For example, universities in much of sub-Saharan Africa have experienced dramatic budget cuts and find it difficult to function, not to mention to improve quality and compete in the international knowledge system. In the middle are academic institutions in the Asian NICs, where significant academic progress has taken place. Thus, the economic prospects for postsecondary education worldwide are mixed.


Universities share a common culture and reality. In many basic ways there is an international convergence of institutional models and norms. At the same time, there are significant national differences that will continue to affect the development of academic systems and institutions. It is unlikely that the basic structures of academic institutions will change dramatically; the traditional university will survive, although it will be changed by the forces discussed here. Open universities and other distance education institutions have emerged, and may provide new institutional arrangements. Efforts to save money may yield further organizational changes as well. Unanticipated change is also possible.

The circumstances facing universities in the first part of twenty-first century are not, in general, favorable. The realities of higher education as a "mature industry," with stable, rather than growing, resources in the industrialized countries, will affect not only the funds available for postsecondary education, but also practices within academic institutions. Accountability, the impact of technologies, and the other forces discussed here will all affect colleges and universities. Patterns will, of course, vary worldwide. Some academic systems, especially those in the newly industrializing countries, will continue to grow. In parts of the world affected by significant political and economic change, the coming decades will be ones of reconstruction. The coming period, therefore, holds many challenges for higher education.


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