News Release

The university of the future

Peer-Reviewed Publication

European Science Foundation

In a world where economies are increasingly dependent upon high-level knowledge, higher education is a key national resource. But a Forward Look initiated by the European Science Foundation (ESF) shows that we need to know more about how universities, and other higher education institutions, are changing in the 21st century.

A team led by Professor John Brennan of the U.K.'s Open University has just examined what we know about today's higher education, and what we need to research further.

In the report of the Higher Education Looking Forward (HELF) project, Brennan he and a multinational team of experts point out that universities are as affected by internationalisation and globalisation as other actors are, ranging from people and companies to whole countries. In the past, universities have educated national elites and produced skilled people needed for local or regional economies. Now they are producing people for the global economy, but their local mission continues. This can expose them to financial as well as academic risk, and can call for more financial and management resources than many universities have available.

Brennan says: "Universities are constantly rethinking their strategy in the light of globalisation. But the expectations of universities are growing all the time and there are some pressures that are hard to balance. For instance, higher education institutions are being asked to produce more research, and also to teach more students in a more personal way. Perhaps more importantly, universities do not exist just to produce economic benefits. They are also important in providing equity, social cohesion and social justice. How can they do this on a world scale?"

He suggests several new lines of research that are needed to improve our knowledge of the changing world of higher education.

Future research must, Brennan thinks, ask about the connections between contemporary social and economic change, the changes now occurring within higher education, and the roles of academics.

This big question leads on to other research questions:

  • How are the changes in the balance of power between higher education's different constituencies affecting higher education's social functions and the way they are carried out?

  • Must universities adopt new functions and blur their boundaries with other social institutions to retain their importance in the knowledge society?

  • How do changes in the organisation of higher education institutions relate to changes in intellectual programmes and agendas, and to advances in knowledge?

  • Do different types of higher education institution have different relationships with the larger social and economic worlds of which they form part?

  • How do national, regional and local contexts help to determine the characteristics of modern higher education systems? What is the role of public authorities? How much do universities vary in the size and nature of their international connections? What does this mean for their development?

  • How might new forms of comparative research achieve a better understanding of the interactions between higher education and society, and the different forms these interactions take in different parts of Europe and more widely?

Brennan says that new forms of social science methodology will be needed to answer these questions. But without this new knowledge, we will not know how universities are adapting to the global world in ways that are compatible with their existing missions and their academic strengths.


Click to view the report

Notes to Editors

From Forward Look to EUROCORES

Forward Looks, the flagship activity of ESF's strategic arm, enable Europe's scientific community, in interaction with policy makers, to develop medium to long-term views and analyses of future research developments with the aim of defining research agendas at national and European level. The activities of Forward Looks are driven by ESF's Member Organisations and, by extension, the European research community. Quality assurance mechanisms, based on peer review where appropriate, are applied at every stage of the development and delivery of a Forward Look to ensure its quality and impact.

The project, Higher Education in Europe beyond 2010: Resolving Conflicting Social and Economic Expectations (HELF), started in April 2006. The rationale for the Forward Look on higher education – referred to as the HELF (Higher Education Looking Forward) project – has been to examine higher education within a wider context of social science research by relating it to more general frameworks of, for example, human capital theories; theories of power, inequality and social exclusion; theories of organisations; new public management etc. By so doing, it was intended to begin to address some of the larger questions concerning the changing relationship between higher education and society and to develop research agendas that would be relevant, not just to researchers but to policy makers and practitioners.

The group of researchers involved in the HELF project have already obtained funding for an EUROCORES Programme on "Higher Education and Social Change" (EuroHESC), designed to develop and implement interdisciplinary comparative research into the relationship between higher education and society. 18 countries have decided to join this important initiative, for which proposals for Collaborative Research Projects are currently being evaluated; networking will start in 2009.

From a strategic perspective, the launch is particularly remarkable because the ESF SCSS managed to channel the outcome of a Forward Look, the ESF flagship instrument, into an international collaborative research programme and therefore demonstrated the capacity of ESF to provide strategic advice for and through its Member Organisations and follow this up with critical mass programmes fostering the needed synergy in European research.

For more details on EuroHESC

More information on HELF

The authors of the HELF report are:

John Brennan, Open University, UK
Jürgen Enders, University of Twente, NL
Christine Musselin, Sciences Po and CNRS, Paris, France
Ulrich Teichler, University of Kassel, D
Jussi Välimaa, University of Jyväskylä, FL

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