Higher education worldwide is undergoing unprecedented growth and transformation. Higher education varies considerably, and not all of the changes it is undergoing are everywhere present. However, in most countries the rate of participation is growing, and this is often accompanied by enhanced stratification of institutions, policies to develop ‘World-Class Universities’ and reorganise research, enhanced household funding and growing private sectors, the multiplication of internal and external instruments for regulating quality, the growing impact of international comparisons and rankings, continuing internationalization including academic and student migration, and organisational mergers. Structures vary. Some differentiation takes the form of binary or dual systems, while other countries exhibit greater levels of diversity. In some systems the vertical stratification of higher education seems to be increasing, playing into growing social and economic inequalities; and there are continuing problems of exclusion or under-participation and under-completion among low socioeconomic status students, students from some ethnicities and regions, and women in certain disciplines. Yet at the same time, in parts of Europe, higher education remains predominantly public and free at the point of entry, and contributes to high social mobility and relatively low inequality.
Higher education in Europe, as elsewhere in the world, has also been swept up in the long wave of organisational modernisation that has taken in the whole of the public and corporate sectors. Each of its roles, stakeholders and connectedness expand continually. There are top-down pressures to compete and perform on an international scale, and to meet economic needs at home; and the academic profession, teaching and research are all less stable than they were. There is a growing emphasis on the specifically economic contributions of the sector, on the student as consumer, and on higher education as a generator and guarantor of graduate employability—as distinct from the contributions of higher education to society, culture, knowledge, and also the formation of students as educational subjects, future professionals, and socially active citizens with a democratic capacity. Along with the economisation of objectives has come a corporatisation of institutions, quasi-market modes of operating, and a shift to regulated autonomy in governance. Institutional adaptation to the new context has been moulded by the shift in governance from a cycle of trust and confidence in institutions to a cycle of suspicion, in which government pursues public purposes and reduces risk via heightened formal accountability measures.
There is a growing emphasis on institutional responsibility for outcomes, budgets and student satisfaction; a shift to strategic leadership, and external and internal management via performance regimes and output indicators; and also the multiplication of internal processes and services—together with downward pressures on inherited academic governance, and in some systems, tensions around core missions in teaching, research and civil society, amid the policy emphasis on instrumental goals. There is no shortage of initiatives to collect data to classify institutions or rank them according to their performance, in spite of the questionable validity of many of these approaches. The multiplication of performance regimes in research has negative implications for scholarly autonomy, the diversity of intellectual works and free imagination in the disciplines. Notwithstanding the fact that performance is increasingly measured, and expanding quantitatively in many areas, it is unclear that this lifts it to higher levels. Nor is it clear that the greater use of competitive mechanisms in system design, funding and in relations between and within institutions, and the partial retreat from the use of planning in favour of competitive allocation on a formula basis, are leading to better outcomes in education and research.
Rising academic management challenges the traditional sovereignty of intellectual and collegial expertise as the key legitimate foundation for resource decisions and even educational priorities and teaching methods, for example in new forms of delivery. Non-academic professionals have an increasingly important role inside institutions and on the border between higher education and society but their relationship with academic staff is often ill-defined, and limited by status tensions, and their work, occupational development needs and potential contributions are less well researched than those of academics.
In addition, Europeanisation in higher education, entailing an unprecedented alignment of structures, contents and processes, has also been transformative, creative and disruptive in national systems. Europeanisation has remade higher education for the better, lifting the life possibilities of students and stimulating unprecedented cooperation in research. Yet European collaboration is under greater pressure than before, not in higher education but in the political and economic domains. Nations vary in their capacity and commitment to contribute to the commonweal, and the balance between common systems and national sovereignty might be shifting towards the latter, though in many quarters a profound commitment to regional identity and unity continues.
The wave of refugees and would-be migrants from the Middle East and North Africa has sharpened tensions in the non-consensual policy area of migration. Collaterally, these tensions impact the free movement of students (especially non-EU students moving to study in Europe) and academic migrants. While EU student freedoms and graduate opportunities have been maintained, not all higher education systems open themselves freely to foreign appointments, inhibiting not just the mobility of talent but its productivity on the basis of an inquiry-based disciplinary logic rather than a national identity logic. Yet higher education harbours an immense reservoir of people, ideas and goodwill, and may have an important part to play in creating solutions to global and regional migration issues and more generally, in the next wave of the European project.
The capacity of higher education to contribute to society, policy, economy and cultural formation depends above all on its capacity to sustain open and critical thought; to relentlessly scrutinise society, the natural world and the human/nature interface using a range of different lenses; to continually develop and explore alternative ways of thinking and social organization; and to prepare graduates with capacities in critical thought and reconstructive practices. If the gift of Europe to the world is that of the university centred on critical thought and imagination, that gift can never be taken for granted. Nurturing the conditions for open critical thinking and autonomous discussion and communication are part the permanent remit of higher education institutions. In a more instrumental period, with rapidly growing obligations of and pressures on higher education, the vision of the university as a critical institution needs to be renewed—just as it has been periodically renewed throughout its history.
All of these perspectives and issues, and many others, engage researcher-scholars in the field of higher education studies, in related social sciences, and in institutional and policy research positions. Doctoral and post-doctoral researchers play an especially important role in research on higher education field, in developing novel theorizations, methods, lines of inquiry and forms of communication and cooperation. The 29th conference of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) at the University of Cambridge is a rich and exciting opportunity to learn, exchange, contribute and debate ideas, data and perspectives about the future of higher education, in Europe and the world.