Skip to main content

Democratising higher education for the benefit of society

The worldwide expansion of demand for higher education during the past half century has fostered systemic national reform efforts to expand access to greater proportions of respective populations. Educational technologies have exponentially accelerated these efforts and changed their means of delivery. Whereas many of these initiatives stem from government decrees, in some cases individual academic leaders have scaled up the magnitude of the impacts of digital innovation. In Australia, the former education minister raised eyebrows last year at the Universities Australia conference when, in response to the loss of onshore international students during the pandemic, he challenged all forty Australian universities to collectively enrol 10 million additional students online and offshore by 2030.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Arizona State University Thunderbird School of Global Management launched the Francis and Dionne Najafi 100-Million Learners Global Initiative, funded by a $25 million philanthropic donation. Intended to target 100 million students worldwide by 2030, the initiative is to be freely available in forty different languages with the expectation that the student population will be 70 percent female. What does the scale of these two initiatives, launched six months apart, tell us about the common global call to scale up, and about differences between Australian and American higher education?

American higher education has been described as both a patchwork quilt of institutional types and a competitive academic marketplace. Inasmuch as higher education in the US, by historical happenstance, is not governed by any centralized federal ministry, both characterizations are entirely accurate. But the worldwide emulation of American higher education derives from the dominance of a relatively small set of research universities, both public and private, whose academic excellence does not necessarily correlate with the broad and equitable distribution of its benefits to society. Moreover, limited accessibility to educational attainment exacerbates social inequality and hampers socioeconomic mobility.

The aggregate enrollment of the leading hundred research-extensive universities numbers roughly ten percent of the U.S. undergraduate population. Despite efforts to promote socioeconomic diversity, the students admitted to these schools generally come from privileged backgrounds. Admissions protocols increasingly favour students from the top quintile or even decile of family income, which precludes the participation of countless academically qualified applicants. More broadly, millions of individuals, including the socioeconomically disadvantaged and historically underrepresented, who would most benefit from advanced education and training, end up not participating because they do not conform to the traditional demographic patterns focused on cohorts of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old degree seekers.

Australian higher education confronts a similar dilemma. While historical roots are drawn from a UK origin, US institutions have been increasingly influential sources of inspiration. Australia’s first universities were eight elite providers of exclusive excellence to a small population. Three phenomena occurred as the sector progressed. Firstly, the elite universities themselves have grown to serve a larger number of students, while retaining a position as being the most exclusive.

Secondly, waves of development have seen Institutes of Technology, new innovative research universities established in the 1970s, and new regional universities, joining the diversity of university type, all themselves growing student volume. And thirdly, private universities and new non-university providers have offered further alternative sources of provision to meet a burgeoning demand for education, from a growing proportion of a school leaver cohort, and from mature learners pursuing lifelong learning.

The policy settings progressed to match this expansion and diversification. Uncapped places, and growth of access to funding for more players, with indexed unit student funding, was combined with globally innovative schemes of student loans and internationally competitive international student recruitment. All have now peaked with caps on places and funding, declining unit funding, and vulnerability in student fee income, all hitting at the same time. Australia’s forty institutions, from their diverse origins, have evolved and migrated into seeking to be copies of each other. They all share similar goals of excellent research and teaching, and comprehensiveness of discipline offerings. The competition appears to be one of all seeking and celebrating the same exclusive excellence that US research-extensive universities have cherished.

In both Australia and the US, millions of potential applicants are unwilling or unable to attend residential colleges because they are bound to geographically disparate locations by necessity or preference, or because of familial or financial obligations. In contrast to unencumbered younger students, non-traditional learners will in the near term comprise the vast majority of individuals seeking education, skills-building, and training opportunities. New and evolving platforms for advanced education must accommodate these individuals and the millions more who will need access to the cutting-edge of new knowledge and research techniques essential to the post-industrial workforce. The advent of scalable online educational technologies that support personalized learning empowers learners of all ages. Diverse student-centric approaches that are broadly accessible to learners of all ages and from all socioeconomic levels throughout their lives will be essential in democratizing higher education.

Martin Betts and Michael Roseman are about to publish a new book on the emergence of a new learning economy to serve these growth opportunities. In their depiction of a new learning economy, growth in lifelong learning will enhance educational wellbeing. Inspired by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, their concept of educational wellbeing is based on the imperative for competence wherever one seeks advancement. They define competence as consisting of knowledge, experience, and consciousness. We all acknowledge here the design limitations that Betts and Rosemann identify as posed by the current learning economy in seeking to improve the competence essential to educational wellbeing—and thus personal and professional fulfillment.

Despite these entrenched design limitations and the lack of scalability of most colleges and universities, a handful of American institutions have sought to expand the remit of higher education. Arizona State University, for example, under the leadership of President Michael M. Crow, pioneered the New American University model, which is committed to the advancement of academic excellence, broad accessibility, and societal impact. The Fifth Wave model extends these tenets to a league of similarly committed large-scale public research universities. Organizational peers in this context include Purdue University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University System of Maryland.

Extending the ambit of the public research university still further, ASU is now operationalizing the research university as a platform for universal learning. Whereas traditional on-campus immersion, grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, is available only to a small portion of the student population, universal learning modalities will leverage educational technologies to accommodate learners of all ages and from all socioeconomic levels throughout their lives.

Broadly accessible and scalable digital platforms serve as an alternative to the traditional undergraduate experience of immersive learning in a residential academic setting. Educational technologies allow the university to extend its mission in multiple modalities. ASU Online programs are grounded in the foundational knowledge core of the liberal arts and sciences. Online degree programs and courses are delivered by the same faculty who teach on campus. Students who graduate from online programs receive the same degrees as those who have attended campus. As a platform for universal learning, ASU is an enterprise that serves all learners by creating, incubating, and scaling tech-enabled educational solutions that are personalized, stackable, and responsive to workforce needs.

Moreover, ASU is committed to offering admission to all academically qualified Arizona residents regardless of financial need. In so doing, ASU has advanced all indicators of academic achievement and diversity of students including those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds or first-generation college applicants. ASU’s success is unprecedented in American higher education: in less than twenty years, it has quintupled research expenditures and increased the number of graduates from all backgrounds fourfold, increased by twenty times the number of learners, and enrolled a student body that is substantially representative of the socioeconomic diversity of the state and nation. For the past seven consecutive years, ASU has topped the list of most innovative universities in the nation, according to the U.S. News & World Report ranking. It is difficult to argue that any Australian university has achieved the same magnitude of growth combined with full democratization of higher education.

ASU operates with a commitment to maximize the scale of public benefit. Along with such design aspirations as academic enterprise, social embeddedness, and transdisciplinary collaboration, ASU is committed to global engagement. Representative of such efforts is the PLuS Alliance, a partnership between ASU, King’s College London, and the University of New South Wales, which is intended to take on such cross-border challenges as health, sustainability, innovation, and social justice. Among the initiatives of the Alliance, TEDI London—The Engineering Design Institute—advances project-based learning supported by industry partners and scalable versions of new forms of engineering pedagogy to serve the needs for engineers in Africa and South Asia.

Most leading global universities originated from the same elitist British and western European models that became replicated throughout the world. As a consequence, most are remarkably homogeneous in their academic organization and operate according to a model of exclusive excellence. The search for status and reputation has been based on increasing demand and raising standards of entry. Increasing exclusion arises as the demand exceeds the capacity to offer a campus-based face-to-face experience of elite education. But all nations need more educated citizenries to maintain economic prosperity and social cohesion.

ASU has undertaken radical differentiation in strategy, purpose, ambition, and scale to an unrivalled extent. We profile the university to suggest the potential of differentiation, innovation, and enterprise for global colleges and universities. ASU was analysed in a conversation on the fiftieth episode of the HEDx podcast series that you can access here.

As all global university leaders come under pressure to find ways of overcoming the challenges to a model of higher education that increasingly no longer serves the needs of society, institutional self-determination and insistence on autonomy must serve to guide future strategies. Society is at an inflection point where bold and differentiated strategies harnessing technological change, responding to educational needs and demands, and increasing access to all that stand to benefit from education, represent an opportunity open to all leaders. Realisation of it by some will be a hallmark of the new learning economy.

First published in Campus Review on 21st May 2022
Michael M. Crow, President, Arizona State University
Martin Betts, Professor Emeritus, Co-founder of HEDx
William Dabars, Professor, Arizona State University