Diversity in the higher education ecosystem

By Susan Robertson 

This is a pre-publication version of an entry in the Sage Encyclopedia of Higher Education

Through a Rear-View Mirror

Trace the arc of time backwards, and we can see growing and considerable diversity in higher education sectors around the world, particularly over the course of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Take, as one example, the United States of America. Such diversity was formed out of institutions with quite different missions and governance arrangements. From small (in some cases very exclusive) community colleges, to large state-funded land-grant and privately-funded elite, these different institutions serviced a growing number of students enrolled in higher education, at the same time as facing out to, and producing, skilled labour, knowledge and innovation for their wider economies and communities. Even in a highly centralised, state-dominated system like France, higher education has been characterised by a degree of institutional diversity, particularly around teaching and research, producing its political elites and reproducing the French social order.  Given the important role of higher education in re/producing social stratification and thus difference, levels of diversity were a reflection of the (unequal) wider social order.

It was this diversity in the higher education ecosystem over the course of the twentieth century – around mission, financing, value of credential, relationship to the wider community and economy, and nature of the student and academic population (student and academic) – that led Clarke Kerr (1963) to argue that the institution itself – the university – was best referred to, not as having a singular, universal form, but that the very idea of a university had now being pluralised. For Kerr, the university was now a ‘multiversity’.

At this point it is tempting to argue that the modern higher education ecosystem has always been diverse, and there is not much more to add to the debate.  Yet fast forward to the beginning of the Twenty-First Century. Now cast your gaze in the direction of emerging Asian economies, like Singapore and Malaysia, or Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the Middle East, and something different is afoot. New kinds of contemporary universities are being assembled from well-established university infrastructures elsewhere in the globe. These ‘pick and mix’ arrangements – from French leading business school (INSEAD), to US-based liberal arts faculty (Yale) and Germany’s Institute for Science and Technology, to name just a few, have enabled the rapid growth of relatively under-developed higher education sectors (Olds, 2007). Move our scrutiny back to global cities in Europe and other developments are under way. US Ivy league Stanford University has established a London-based course, Stanford Ignite London, intended to bring the ‘Silicon Valley culture’ to the UK through targeting British science, technology, engineering and mathematics entrepreneurs (Parr, 2015). One a game taker and now seeking to be a game shaper and changer, China’s Peking University has established a new campus in Oxford, UK, to offer business studies. In 2016 the largest global education publisher, Pearson, opened a for-profit university in London, joining a burgeoning number of ‘Alternative Providers’ (AP) (HESA, 2018) servicing some 50,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programmes.

How might we think about what this explosion of new actors and activity means for existing higher education ecosystems, and what new questions they raise? Does Kerr’s characterisation of this diversity as a multiversity still hold, or do we need new concepts and conversations through which to understand these developments?  In this essay I explore these dynamics, arguing governments and allied institutions – from multilateral and intergovernmental agencies to thinktanks and corporations – increasingly view higher education as a means to create a global education services sectors, on the one hand, and to develop knowledge-based economies (King et al., 2009), on the other. Higher education is also viewed as a means to advance national and regional projects via a form of soft power. At the same time, developments in the sector both respond to, and shape, individual’s and family’s decisions to invest in higher education as a positional good to secure status and labour market advantages (Brown et al., 2011; PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2007).

Yet I will also point to a paradoxical set of dynamics at work in the ecosystem which, on the one hand, produces new forms of diversity and difference, whilst on the other hand, this very diversity and difference is erased through governance instruments which promote a singular, new universal logic; that of the competitive university. Diversity in this new higher education ecosystem is thus increasingly given shape and substance by competitiveness as a cognitive orientation, so that the sector is constantly on the brink of collapsing into a form shaped by ecological dominance of a particular rationality: that of global market capitalism. The following sections trace out the vertical and horizontal rescaling that has generated a new form of diversity in the higher education ecosystem, and points to new paradoxes that are emerging as a result.  The essay concludes by arguing that Schumpeter’s (1942) ‘creative destruction’ – giving rise to innovation and renewal – is being turned on its head, in that we are witnessing the ‘destructive creation’ of the HE ecosystem shaped by a singular logic: that of competitive capitalism.

Vertical and Horizontal Rescaling Producing New Forms of HE Diversity

Looking back, and it is clear that in many countries around the world, the 1970s oil shocks ruptured what the historian, Eric Hobsbawm (1994), was to call the ‘thirty glorious years’. In truth, such deep crises have early warning signals. In this case, by the end of the 1960s, the advanced Western economies had begun to experience a slowing down of growth and a decline in profitability, in part as the production of goods was moved toward Asia, as well as the growth of the ‘Asian Tigers’ placing new pressures on the West’s economic development model.

Several developments were significant at this point which were to change the nature of the social contract between the state and its citizens in the heartlands of the West. The first was pressure on post-war welfare systems and their capacity to manage growing demands on the state’s resources, including rising unemployment amongst youth and industrial workers. A second was growing disenchantment with Keynesian economics; the development model which had powered the post-war economies. New alternatives were proposed by free-market economists, such as Friedman and Hayek (Peck, 2013), who had deeply opposed the turn to collectivism and state planning. Their goal was to ‘seize and re-task’ the state to set in train market-oriented reforms; each context a specific challenge in reconstructing the relationship between the state, its citizens and the economy (Osborne and Gaebler, 1991).  Across the developed economies market-oriented reforms meant some mix of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation. This included setting in train public sector reforms from the 1980s onwards, broadly referred to as new Public Management (Hood, 1991). These reforms were to encourage the state bureaucracy and its allied institutions, including education sectors, to operate according to the logics of the market (competition, efficiency, outputs). State monopolies in areas like transport, water, electricity, telecommunications, education and health care were either privatised or set up as quasi-markets. Key sectors were also deregulated, so that investors could enter. Controls over finance were lifted, including foreign direct investment. Labour union strongholds were bought under control through state force (UK’s miners and publishers strikes) and reorganising industrial relations.

A key cultural shift for universities was the emulation of the core values and practices of business both in the ways in which the university was governed, and the ways in which the university itself governed its academic and non-academic faculty (Marginson and Considine, 2000). NPM has dramatically altered the vision and mission of the university, away from that Newman’s ‘Idea of a University’ that had stood as a fundamental anchor for more than a century (Newman, 1910), toward one which is necessarily mindful of the bottom line, and of its competitors – locally, nationally and internationally.

A third development was the promotion of services industries, including education, as basis for ongoing economic development, and the exploitation of knowledge leading to innovation and revenue-generating intellectual property. This drew on Michael Porters (1983) idea of a country having a ‘comparative advantage’ in a particular resource (e.g. natural, human, skills) enabling them to occupy a niche in the global economy. Countries like New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom were early movers into opening up education as a services sector aimed at recruiting international full-fee-paying students. Over time, the ‘education service sector’ has become a major revenue generator for institutions as well as for a number of the advanced economy governments, and now forms a major role as part of a new diversified and more globalised services-based economy. The GDP value of the education services sector in Australia, for example, was around $18 billion, and placed 4th – just behind the trade in iron ore (Deloittes, 2015). Such developments have changed the ecosystem of the higher education sector in significant ways. Not only does the sector include new specialist units on education services in the government department concerned with trade, but a new array of actors has also entered the sector – from recruiters to marketers to new systems of credit. Financialising and commodifying the sector in this way has also attracted interest of venture capital and other for-profit actors who see new opportunities following the unbundling of former state monopolies (Robertson and Komljenovic, 2016).

The idea of a ‘knowledge-based economy’ was heavily promoted in the mid-1990s by global multilateral agencies, like the World Bank, intergovernmental agencies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (Robertson, 2009), and regional projects such as the European Commission’s European Higher Education Area. Rolling out of the idea of a knowledge-based economy as a new economic development model has had major effects on the overall shape and scope of the higher education sector.  Whilst not exhaustive, key developments include widening access to help boost the amount and quality of human capital, explicit strategies to attract or retain the best brains for research and development – including most recently by China, standardising degree architectures via, for example Europe’s Bologna Process that includes some 47 countries across Europe and beyond, innovations in the curriculum – including a focus on competencies and entrepreneurship, new forms of digitally-mediated learning, known as Massive Open On-Line Courses (MOOCs), enrolling large numbers of students in any one course, and new governance tools put into place to ensure competition and steer development. 

Taken together, they have set in train both the horizontal and vertical rescaling of the functional division of labour in the higher education sector.  As a result, the higher education eco-system is made up of actors whose spatial horizons might span from the local to the national and global; there are different temporal logics at work, dependent on what kind of function they play – from more immediate responses to longer planning cycles; there is a huge diversity of actors and growing – from credit rating agencies like Standards and Poors assessing the credit-worthiness of universities, to a myriad of platforms emerging, such LinkedIn, promoting employability and acting as a human resource agency, or ResearchGate helping to increase the visibility of an academic through promoting the circulation of an academic’s papers. As Sassen (2006) observes, such innovative entrepreneurship (almost unknowingly) sets in train a new way of doing things—or a new logic—so that it is impossible not to respond. In other words, new logics signal a change in the rules of the game.

New Paradoxes in Governing the HE Ecosystem

I have highlighted the dynamics generating considerable diversity in the higher education ecosystem stimulated by pressures to respond to the imperative to be globally competitive.  Yet this movement toward diversity is accompanied by an alternative one that closes down possibilities for difference in that it uses an imagined ‘world class’ university (Hazelkorn, 2016) and set of proxies around an imagined knowledge economy (Robertson, 2009), with a single route or trajectory as to how to get there.  Those which have not yet made it as learn that they are losers and those who at the top of this hierarchical ordering learn that this is the game to be played (and won).

This form of ‘competitive comparison’ acts as a moral spur and defacto form of governance, giving direction to competitivism through its insistence that we aspire to improve (despite very different resources and positions in the global hierarchy), even if we don’t make it.  This gives rise to registers of difference, such as developed/under-developed, superior/inferior, but at the same time the differences that do count (histories, resources and so on) are erased.  Those doing the assessing, or offering their services to determine progress, have the power to set and reset the rules of the game to ensure a spur to action. Similarly, a proliferation of quality assurance mechanisms variously directed at teaching, research, and institutional management also work with competitive comparison. And whilst there is considerable concern over the use of hierarchical ranking systems, nevertheless, governments and individual institutions have used and so help to legitimate these ranking technologies to advance their own projects and interests.

‘Creative Destruction’ of ‘Destructive Creation’?

What are we to make of the growing dominance of capitalism’s logics and forms in the higher education ecosystem? Has it renewed the sector, or are new logics being set in train that undermine the very purpose of the idea of a university – as creator and curator of knowledge? The economist, Joseph Schumpeter (1942) coined the phrase ‘creative destruction’ to describe the constant cycle in capitalism; of innovation giving rise to new ideas, new products and services, and new institutional forms, but also their collapse and destruction, as newer ideas and forms come along.  Is the diversity in many higher education ecosystems around the globe, and their inter-dependencies, sufficiently robust to withstand the consequences of its inclusion in the expansion of capitalist markets, and as rent and profit seeking forms of knowledge production?

Or, is Schumpeter’s maxim being turned on its head so that what we are witnessing is a form of ‘destructive creation’ when a singular logic begins to take hold whose rules of the game are shaped by the dynamics of competitive capitalism. These competing dynamics, of opening up greater diversity through the multiplicity of actors, whilst at the same time closing down non-market diversity through the limiting the possibilities for the contemporary university, suggests a schizophrenic set of dynamics at play. The contradiction at its heart is that it simultaneously values and devalues diversity and difference. Far from Kerr’s multiversity, we now have the creation of an ecosystem that favours a particular, singular, logic that declares itself a universal; s logic of market capitalism that is destructive of the very conditions that nourishes knowledge creation and curation in the university and diversity in the HE ecosystem.


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