In a world ever more connected, where technical, social and economic forces rapidly integrate people once divided by distance and circumstance, there grows a concomitant need for individuals that possess a global outlook – and a knowledge that can successfully bridge significant cultural gaps. Indeed, the transition from an industrial-based society has brought on a new thought: that success flows to the world by the production, distribution, and consumption of knowledge.
In this new knowledge-based economy, the role of the public university has become more pivotal and more critical to the future growth of a community or nation. Increasingly, universities are called upon to possess and deliver the resources necessary to compete in a highly globalized, highly contentious environment.
In adapting to the new realities, academia has moved far from the industrial-based, geographically specific beginnings of America’s land grant universities, when a college education was seen as an imperative for workers in an increasingly mechanized world. The Morrill Act of 1862 – the enabling legislation that helped establish the public university network — was intended to provide a broad segment of the population with a practical education that had direct relevance to their daily lives. Today, America’s land-grant universities continue to fulfill the Act’s democratic mandate for openness and service. But they’ve built monumentally on the land-grant legacy, with millions of students able to explore disciplines far beyond the industrial scope envisioned in the original Act’s mission, and do so in an increasingly globalized, knowledge-based setting, brought together by the connective power of the Internet.
Yet, in attempting to meet their mandate, today’s public universities face significant challenges far beyond a simple legislative act. “Higher education’s economic model continues under pressure with oversupply from more than 4,000 post-secondary institutions, high delivery costs, tuition discounting and declining subsidies,” says Randy Best, Chairman and CEO of Academic Partnerships. “It seems clear that the future will be quite different than the past and the present.”
That future most definitely includes a global component, as more and more universities come to realize that the geographical boundaries of the old school ways are no longer mandatory – and that “going global” offers a means of off-setting the continuing march of cuts and declines. Original land grant institutions still have a responsibility to educate their home state. But with the advent of sophisticated online communications, higher education has the possibility to move out into the wider world. Indeed, true globalization is about more than just importing foreign students to campus or arranging fleeting semesters overseas, but exporting American knowledge to the rest of the world for its consumption.
Says James J. Duderstadt, President Emeritus and University Professor of Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, public universities today “face the challenges of a hypercompetitive global, knowledge-driven society in which other nations have recognized the positive impact that building world-class public universities can have.” Indeed, America already revels in the status of its public universities; they are, says Duderstadt, one of the nation’s greatest assets. But preserving their quality will require not only sustained investments but also significant paradigmatic shifts in how the university governs, how it manages resources, how teachers teach and students learn. Says Duderstadt, “There also will likely be demand that public research universities broaden their public purpose and stakeholders far beyond state boundaries.” Preserving the quality and capacity of the extraordinary resource represented by public universities “must remain a national priority, even if the support required to sustain these institutions at world-class levels is no longer viewed as a priority by our states,” says Duderstadt.
The most rapidly developing trend in higher education is the utilization of technology in the delivery of instruction by universities around the world. Every year, more institutions look to benefit from this global phenomenon – with varying levels of success. Notes Best, “crafting a strategy to leverage the vast potential of online learning should make higher education more accessible and affordable.” But converting traditional degree programs and certificates into an online format, recruiting qualified students and supporting enrolled students through graduation often stretch an institution’s capabilities. Consequently, many public universities turn to global partners who already have in place an international network that greatly expands their reach and allows them to access outstanding global talent.
“We believe that when the dust settles some schools will have adapted more quickly than others and some will be major winners,” says Best. Successes in the new global higher education order will go to public universities that have acted with urgency to reposition themselves, embrace the inevitable changes underway and overcome battles aimed at preserving an unsustainable status quo. Says Best, for universities responsive to change, “they will become almost unassailable competitors. They are like sleeping giants that have awakened with a new vision to become super schools.” The new public university stays true to their original purpose of educating willing and able students within their own states. But they now see the whole country and beyond as a service area, and with the support of their staff and boards, they are determined to do what is necessary to prosper in an environment of extreme competition and growing globalization.
Thousands of online contenders are now wrestling for student shares; in just a small sample of study areas, institutions in the United States will be providing more than 500 MBAs, RN to BSNs, MSNs, and MEds online by the end of 2016. To succeed, this new generation of public universities will need to differentiate themselves not so much by what degrees they offer but by how they are offered, aligning requirements much closer to the expectations, needs and lifestyles of 21st century higher ed consumers: digitally oriented, older, married, working, parents, distracted but self-directed.
Says Best, “We believe that soon there will only be two types of universities: those with growing enrollments and those with declining enrollments.” Universities that are growing will be adding faculty and programs while those that are losing enrollment will be reducing staff and programs. Says Best, “It will not be possible to remain static. Success in the future will be defined more by how many students a university successfully educates rather than rejects. In our network-based economy, becoming a household brand and a top choice for higher education consumers is the sure way to grow over time.”
American higher education, and in particular public universities, holds great potential for attaining a new level of global competitiveness and social responsibility. By using their remarkable assets and offering them globally, they have the ability to change the world through access, affordability and high quality, raising the educational bar around the globe. Says Best, “it is this very pursuit of big dreams that has made America the world leader in dozens of fields. It is time for a new and a broader vision for American higher education, which is entrepreneurial, innovative and global.”