Three European Stages and Excellence

Universities in the World

Universities have an extensive history dating back at least some thousand years with early, yet very small-scale learning venues for example in the East, in China and Korea, on the Arabian Peninsula, and in Europe. Excellence was visible in the contributions of the graduates in all important fields, be it in governance, in the natural sciences (Archimedes could be considered a graduate of Alexandria University around 300 BC), in philosophy, in agriculture, or in medicine. Professor Winckler in chapter “Excellence in Strategic Planning” also gives a brief overview of the history of universities.

The role of universities in society changed when there was a drastic increase in the proportion of the age group of 18–24 year olds who participated in universities. Some call this the massification of higher education. There were times when it was a rare exception when a youngster went to university. The massification of universities almost implied that it was an exception if a youngster did not go to university. Obviously, this is an exaggeration, but serves to illustrate a dramatic increase in university attendance levels from some 1 % of the age group to 40–50 % of the age group.

Massification first took place in the US in the years following the end of the Second World War in 1945. It was followed by Europe after around 1960, and later by other countries which had made substantive leaps in economic development.

During the process of massification, the notion of excellence as providing graduates with the necessary skills to function well in society never changed. Yet, it manifested itself within universities quite differently as we shall illustrate with the example of Europe.

Massification and Excellence in Europe

For Europe, we can distinguish roughly four periods in terms of the position of research universities in society, and the corresponding notions of excellence:

– The period before the Second World War. Universities were elite and had a strong research base, which was interwoven with teaching. The graduates almost by definition became the leaders of society in all important fields. In the US, European Universities were used as the example of excellence in the Flexner report of 1930 [8].

– 1945–1965. Universities on the continent had difficulty in recovering from the war as so many professors, either were killed or had fled to the US, where many of them found the US a more rewarding place to work. Research universities recovered or were newly founded for a limited proportion of the 18–24 age group with strong ties to national or regional development (agriculture, electronics, national or regional production). However, the pre-war dominance of German universities in excellence was a thing of the past.

– 1965–1995 was the period of massification of European universities and the loss of contact with regional development. Many new universities were established to accommodate the increase in enrolment levels. Enrolments increased mostly because of “social demand”. Societies were engaged in exploiting the pool of talent. While in the past access to universities was mainly for the privileged few from wealthier families, now it was also the turn for talented youngsters from more humble backgrounds. Financial aid was introduced for those students to allow them to participate in higher education.

The rapid expansion of universities definitely took a toll on “excellence” in the quality of graduates. Hiring requirements for new staff were relaxed. There was little debate within universities about “excellence” in university education or on excellence in research. The massification continued in many countries along with “democratization” as a response to student protests in the late 1960s. The “new” students, from more humble backgrounds, did not feel at ease with the old elite structure and the old ways of communication. Governments often answered the protests of students about “outmoded structures” by allowing students and staff to have a substantial, often decisive influence on budget allocation, the curriculum, and other elements of university policy. This influence may have had some benefits, but was also in many cases used to serve the personal interests, not as much of the students, but of the new, often inexperienced, staff. It is likely that the overall impact has been a decline in quality.

There were also concerns about the absorption capacity of the labor market for the upcoming flood of fresh graduates. In retrospect, it is very surprising to see that those concerns turned out to be unwarranted: the flood was easily absorbed, even though the quality of the graduates may have been less than it had been in the earlier period. Some may say that it was world economic growth, which caused European countries to boom economically and demand more graduates. Yet, all the evidence (see, for example, Acemoglu [9]) points in another direction: it was the inflow of university graduates itself which contributed to economic growth.

– We are now (since approximately 1995) in a period where full attention is focused on excellence and quality. Most countries have installed accreditation procedures for degree courses or for institutions (sometimes for both). Within universities, quality and excellence is part of a constant debate. This debate is always about the graduate: what does she or he need to know, need to be able to do, and need to function well in terms of attitudes and capabilities? The links with the external environment reinvigorate this debate. The ivory tower in Europe is closed. The university has become an open forum, well organized and recognized, transparent, with a keen eye for the demands from stakeholders in society and close links with its socio-economic environment, yet with still many challenges (see: Ritzen [10]).

Since 2005, the information and technology revolution brought about by the Internet has created a vast potential for on-line learning through so-called MOOCs (massive open online courses). The challenge for universities is to “blend” on-line learning in university education with the curriculum.

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