Professor Guy Neave, Head of Research at the IAU, looks at the challenges facing higher education

Could you briefly outline the functions of the IAU?

The IAU is the longest established, independent non-governmental organisation to bring together and represent the world's universities. Its membership is institutional and includes university leaders, decision-makers and scholars, for whom the Association provides a worldwide platform to discuss and work together on matters of mutual concern. For more than 40 years, the Association has been actively committed - as its name implies - to upholding and advancing the internationalisation of higher learning.

To what extent does the IAU seek to support tertiary education in the developing world?

Tertiary education is a fuzzy term, covering company training schemes and private, for-profit establishments, in addition to the usual mainstream post-secondary education. The IAU has a focused remit. Its members are predominantly research universities with post-graduate programmes up to doctoral level. The Association encourages and promotes the development of higher education of quality by providing extensive, up-to-date information on universities worldwide, and more concretely through the development of higher education data bases - on systems, institutions and qualifications - that serve both north-south and south-south co-operation. The World Academic Database is shortly to be available on CD ROM.

What are the major obstacles to providing tertiary education in the developing world?

These obstacles are all too evident. The burden of debt, the fluctuation in commodity prices, and a very high rate of demographic growth act as considerable brakes on the ability of many developing countries to sustain the basic infrastructure of higher education, let alone expand it in keeping with the birth rate or with social aspirations. Added to this is the increasing stress upon all sectors of academia, lecturers, administrators and researchers alike. The haemorrage of the highly trained and the fragility of the research base, both of which have been discussed at the meetings and in the research output of the Association, compound these difficulties - particularly in Africa.

Tertiary education is facing problems in the developed world too, not least falling funding and rising demand in some countries. How do you see these issues developing in coming years?

Today, the real brain teaser is 'Who should pay?' Tomorrow, the next conundrum in this line of approach is likely to be, 'What will the attitude be of those who cannot pay?' For many decades, university education has conferred inestimable advantages in terms of income, quality of life and participation in society. These are by no means as obvious or as visible as they were. Hence the accusation that universities are inefficient. In the near future, continuing education or training will, it is claimed, be a condition of continued employment. So what is to happen to those who can neither benefit nor pay, or both, for this necessity? As society withdraws from funding higher education and calls upon private individuals to take up the financial slack, it has increasingly to attend to how it is to avoid the growth of an underclass, or a substratum of 'marginals'. The insolent riches of some contrasted with the increasing poverty of others is not a matter that higher education can remedy. It has to do with social and political choice. But higher education can, most assuredly, amplify the perverse effects of that choice.

More and more students appear to be taking 'hands-on' courses such as business studies at the expense of more traditional humanities degrees. Why?

It's scarcely surprising, though I suspect your question is framed with British trends in mind, rather than the European scene. First, rather a lot of Business Schools of a most variegated range opened in the past decade as part of higher education's rush to show that it is 'responsive to the market'. So there are more places available in Business Schools. That's the pull factor. Second, there is the continual hammering that 'vocationally oriented' programmes give better prospects of high income at best or less likelihood of unemployment at worst. And that's the push factor. But very much depends on the level of programme. In France, even students from top notch Business Schools, holding the equivalent of an MBA, face difficulties finding the type of job that gives the openings they have been told they ought to expect.

In eastern Europe, however, Business Studies carry a dual cachet of being modern, Western and, for the moment, appear to lead on to the glittering prizes - a cellular phone and a BMW! What we don't know, other than on the basis of anecdote, is whether the type of student who ten years ago would have studied sociology or history, say, now goes for enterprise. Or, for that matter, whether those today studying the humanities are first generation entrants to higher education. Agreed, the rate of increase in the numbers of Business Studies students has been more rapid than the increase in humanities. That is not miraculous, either. A decade back, business was a relatively marginal field in most European universities, though less so in the non-university sector. Yet even today those studying humanities as a proportion of all university students far outstrip those in business, howsoever defined - and this field is a pretty broad church. The issue is how much longer the 'market' will be able to absorb this swelling tide before the short-term value of the field collapses. Or the captains of industry tell us that what the universities have given them, they no longer need or find adequate.

Today's 'hands on' courses are tomorrow's 'academic study'. That has been the history of the university for 800 years. There are even doctorates in business administration springing up in the US which shows this eternal cycle is ever renewed and ever green, though the 'greening' proceeds at a vastly accelerated pace.

What long-term issues does this trend raise?

The long-term issues are immense because they pose questions that have always been with us. What is the value of 'useful' knowledge for employment, as against knowledge that allows individuals and communities to live together in reasonable tolerance, understanding and willingness to agree to differ? Can communities, whether linguistic, anthropologically or even self-defined, maintain a sense of cohesion simply by dint of possessing skills that allow them to 'grab a share of the market'? Or do they require a developed sense of their history, of what binds them together or what identifies? These are issues which the humanities have always sought to address. And they serve to temper a society so that training and skills have value for the collective, rather than being the means by which 'everyman's hand is turned against his neighbour' - a pretty good description of the competitive ethic.

How do you see the future of tertiary education in today's increasingly high-tech, skill-dependent economies?

All economies by definition have been skill-dependent, even peasant agriculture. No skills, nothing to exchange, no economy. At any given moment of history, all technology relative to its day has been high technology. And that since the start of the industrial revolution two and a half centuries ago, if not before. However, when knowledge is both a capital and a means of production in an economy that relies on services and the trading of non-material goods, the institution that raises the level of knowledge in the general population with the greatest speed and efficiency is the key and the driving force in that economy. At present, it is higher education. Whether this function shall remain in higher education, as we currently understand and define it, is a moot point. Other forms may take over. They may not necessarily take the same institutional shape. They may lie outside the bounds of the nation state. But the long-term question is whether 'knowledge generating agencies' - education, higher or tertiary - will follow the pattern of operational segmentation found in present day corporations, with control in one country and production in another. If higher education does follow this pattern, will it not reinforce at a world level the growing gulf between controllers and controlled, between haves and have nots? This is not a pretty prospect. But it stands in the wings, nevertheless.

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©Kensington Publications 1996