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