Global Challenges
Issue no. 14 | November 2023
The Future of Universities
Global Challenges
Issue no. 14 | November 2023
The Future of Universities | Introduction

Universities in the 21st Century: A Changing Global Landscape

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Universities have changed in response to globalisation in the last decades and navigate an increasingly complex higher education landscape. Will they become yet another for-profit  business or will they manage to redefine their broad missions and remain spaces where one can think freely and critically?

Universities go through a tough time. They are criticised on all sides. On the one hand, they are systematically berated and defunded by populist leaders who accuse them of social elitism, theoretical abstraction, political radicalism and cosmopolitan aloofness. On the other hand, nostalgics of a romanticised era of higher public funding consider them to be bureaucratic neoliberal monsters whose intellectual agenda has fallen prey to global corporate interests. Coming from left and right, these criticisms suggest that universities are no longer able to satisfy the main social demands placed upon their shoulders, as they would fail to prepare young generations to become informed and active citizens; develop solutions to the socio-technological problems of the future; and invent new forms of working and living together based on core values of respectful exchange, disinterested scholarship and meritocratic advancement in the scientific career – what the sociologist Robert Merton believed were the key characteristics of scientific learning.

Although the criticism may appear exaggerated, it is true that universities have undergone major transformations in the last fifty years since the creation of mass universities in the wake of the postwar Western recovery and the need to adapt the skill sets of new generations to an increasingly deindustrialised labour market. The era of democratisation of higher education that occurred in the 1960s in the West preceded the advent of globalisation and the ensuing expansion and democratisation of universities worldwide, especially in Asia, where China has now become a major academic power house. This issue of Global Challenges thus seeks to harness how universities have changed in response to globalisation in the last decades. It also highlights the role of other factors, such as the digitalisation of learning, which was accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, or the changing demands of students who revert to rankings and other reputational tools to navigate an increasingly complex higher education landscape.

The articles point to the importance of the 1980s as a key turning point in the global transformation of higher education, marked by the “financialisation” of Western economies in general, and of universities in particular. Such financialisation has at least four components. First, there emerged strong pressures to cut public investments in the field of higher education. Second, the missions of public universities were redefined, as public spending needed to be rationalised as an “investment” capable of yielding financial returns and could no longer be justified solely on behalf of ideologies promoting social equality, democratisation of knowledge or solidarity. Third, important changes in university boards occurred with the hiring of financial markets specialists who replaced visionary academic peers. This led to a prioritisation of responsibly managing financial endowments (especially in private universities) and generating profits over producing qualitative academic outputs and innovative frontier research. Fourth, and relatedly, new public management models spread in much of the Anglo-European universities at a time when US institutions became leaders in a field of globally ranked universities marked by fierce competition for talented students. With this financialised post-1980s university model, academics started to witness (and criticise the spread of) new techniques to manage academic staff that were associated with the increasing use of metrics, audits and quantitative assessments rather than qualitative traditional peer review. These new tools justified budgetary cuts on “non-profitable” disciplines such as the humanities and funding was increased in emergent interdisciplinary fields that extolled the values of corporate concerns and their interest in sponsoring practical, applied and technical knowledge and solutions rather than long-term fundamental research and societal critical questioning.

Even though these trends continue to play a key transformative role in present-day academia – in particular, in post-Brexit British higher education –, other processes have started to transform universities since the 2000s. First, the 2008 economic crisis depleted Anglo-American universities of their precious financial resources, while Europe continued to witness the continuing defunding of public universities and Asian countries began to invest in universities, predominantly in the scientific and technological fields – all leading to a certain levelling of the playing field. Second, this came at a time of deepened anxiety over the place of traditional Eurocentric epistemologies and conceptions of knowledge, when a new generation of students with new expectations, faced with an increasingly complex labour market, demanded more accountability from Anglo-American university “shareholders” for the investment they made in their very expensive education. Their critique largely orginates in endogeneous processes associated with a broader historical reevaluation of universities’ past links to corporate and colonial interests, which lead university directors to set up commissions of inquiry with reparative objectives. While sometimes risking to generate new forms of epistemic closure, students’ legitimate quests for historical truth and reparative justice have been wrongly portrayed and instrumentalised by nationalist and populist leaders pushing their conservative agendas. This third aspect of the post-2008 reaction – populist hostility to new academic knowledge – affected universities not only in authoritarian contexts, like in Russia, Hungary or Turkey, but also in the US and in Europe. It was mostly staged in the media, which propagated political controversies about the alleged radicalisation of academia. This new context created what university backers considered to be an environment filled with “reputational risks”, which further weakened universities that feared loosing the financial support of donors and private funders of research. In the meantime, faculty bodies, attached to their tradition of free and respectful exchange of a diversity of ideas, have felt a loss of power and an increased sense of insecurity, as witnessed by the multiplications of threats to academic freedom in the last few years. Remarkably, although all these processes have had different origins, they have sometimes combined to accelerate previous neoliberal transformations.

Not everything is bleak, however. Universities may have produced more knowledge in the last 50 years than they did in the rest of human history. Universities have to solve an existential crisis by redefining their main mission – as the language of sustainability and diversity alone will not suffice. Academic freedom remains a core value in many universities that uphold the traditional Humboldtian values of research, innovation and humanism, while mixing it with a concern for the democratisation of knowledge that was largely absent from nineteentnh-century German universities. Similarly, in line with rising living standards in emerging countries, the number of international students continues to grow. In many places, education is still perceived as a “common good” and not a “for profit” knowledge that can be commodified. Greater inter-university cooperation has taken place within higher education networks, including both student exchanges (as Europe’s Erasmus programme) and research cooperation across regions and countries (as Europe’s funding schemes, from which Switzerland has unfortunately been cut in the last few years). Universities also stand at the beginning of a new era of learning as a digital revolution brings AI-led transformations to all aspects of research, with as yet unknown consequences for the democratisation of knowledge or the bureaucratic burdens placed on university professors. Digitalisation can democratise access to knowledge, but only to the extent that the unequal access to digital resources worldwide – the digital divide and “silicon ceiling” denounced by some of our contributors – is addressed. It will therefore be useful only if it is accompanied by stronger international collaboration among universities and supported by critical assessments of its technologies, in all their aspects, from data ownership to the governance of digital assets.

As a result of all these trends, universities today are facing crucial challenges which need to be addressed. They have to solve an existential crisis by redefining their main mission – as the language of sustainability and diversity alone will not suffice.

World’s Higher Education Students and Teachers, 1980–2018. Source: To WM and Yu BTW, “Rise in Higher Education Researchers and Academic Publications [version 1; peer review: 2 approved]”, Emerald Open Res 2020, 2:3. https://doi.org/10.35241/emeraldopenres.13437.1.

First, they have to address the issue of financing as public funding continuously decreases and the need to develop sustainable strategies without placing the burdens on new generations by increasing tuition costs. Universities need to remain affordable and accessible to continue to promote social mobility and train citizens to think critically, which is essential to well-functioning democracies. Public financing will remain key, as universities are more than spaces furthering the employability of younger generations: they must also provide opportunities for life-long learning beyond their core focus on training future generations and giving them the skills to think critically. Second, they have to reimagine forms of inter-university cooperation in an ever more competitive global field where new actors like vocational schools emerge. A key concern is to defend values of internationalism and cosmopolitanism: universities have to fend off political pressures and interferences with academic freedom at the same time as they need to answer demands for historical and present accountability, including about past university entanglements with exploitative logics with respect to what is called today the Global South. A true internationalism based on equality and symmetry is yet to be constructed. Third, and last, universities have to address the multiple demands placed on researchers and professors, who are increasingly asked to become fundraisers, managers and communicators experts on top of being supervisors, researchers and teachers, leading to the multiplication of burn-outs and other work-related forms of suffering. Overall, the ivory tower has been torn down, but that does not mean that universities should become yet another business pursuing profit maximisation and overlook its broader missions. Universities provide the time, space and resources to reflect on these issues in depth and in the longue durée: they need to remain spaces where one can think freely and critically without moral bans and censorship.

  • 1
    Futures of Higher Education and the Recovery of Purpose

    In recent years, the discourse on higher education has increasingly been dominated by an emphasis on the economic value provided by universities. Arguing that a university’s purpose goes far beyond its immediate role of preparing students for the job market, Noah W. Sobe explores the potentially harmful consequences for both universities and students of a neoliberal discourse focussed on value.

  • 2
    Reimagining Education in the Knowledge Society

    The defining characteristic of the knowledge society in which we live is an abundance of readily available information on every topic imaginable. It is by providing the capacity to transform this information into knowledge, writes Chanwoong Baek, that higher education reveals its unique purpose: through learning to analyse information, individuals can use it for ends that are beneficial both to themselves and to society.

  • 3
    Education Policies: Foundational Research beyond Agenda Setting

    Public policy research – including research on education policy – typically focusses on policy-making in the Global North, producing results that are not necessarily applicable elsewhere. Against this background, Gita Steiner-Khamsi re-examines education policy from a global perspective, surveying key questions for policy transfer and highlighting issues of particular relevance to the Global South.

  • 4
    AI in Education and Research: Towards a More Ethical Engagement

    As in many other spheres of human activity, AI is likely to have a highly disruptive effect on higher education, significantly affecting current methods of teaching and research. In this context, write Moira V. Faul and Anna Numa Hopkins, it is essential to promote an ethical engagement with AI technologies, insisting on transparency and ensuring appropriate governance frameworks.

  • 5
    Data Assets and the Future Governance of Higher Education

    Across many aspects of higher education, the activities of both students and instructors are now frequently mediated via digital technology. As a result, Janja Komljenovic and Kean Birch suggest, issues around data ownership have taken on increasing importance for the sector as a whole. Ultimately, it is only by monitoring how our data is used that we can counter its growing monetisation.

  • 6
    Higher Education, Decolonisation and the Global South

    Higher education institutions across the global South face a number of particular challenges, from dealing with the effects of political instability to issues around financing and quality assurance. To address these challenges, proposes Alexandre Dormeier Freire, higher education itself may be need to be reimagined, including in particular a revaluation of what is widely perceived as a Western approach to knowledge.

  • 7
    University and Migration: New Directions for African Students

    Students from sub-Saharan Africa have long travelled to Europe, especially to France, for their university studies; they are now also turning to the US and China in increasing numbers. Examining this trend from both an economic and a socio-political perspective, Simeon Lauterbach reveals its implications for the students themselves as well as for their home countries.

  • 8
    The Conundrum of Race and Affirmative Action in Higher Education

    Since the mid-1960s, affirmative action has been used by universities in various countries as a tool to reduce racial discrimination and to ensure a more representative admissions policy. Surveying affirmative action in higher education in France and Brazil, Camille Giraut examines its implementation in these differing political contexts, alongside its broader social ramifications.

  • 9
    The Sino-American Competition in Higher Education

    China and the US have contrasting approaches to higher education policy across multiple dimensions, reflecting differing political ideologies and approaches to public spending. Analysing the similarities and differences between the two approaches, Jin Sun suggests that the higher education sector can also be understood as an arena for competition between the two countries, as much in socio-economic as in ideological terms.

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     View of interior inside the Ulster University new Belfast campus Block C.
    Resources of the Geneva Graduate Institute in the Field of Higher Education

    This selection of resources aims to complement the articles above.

Grégoire Mallard, Director of Research
Dominic Eggel, Executive Director of Research
Marc Galvin, Responsible for Research Valorisation
Geneva Graduate Institute

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This issue has been produced by the Graduate Institute’ Research Office, in collaboration with the Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education (NORRAG). It also includes contributions from academic departments of the Institute.
NORRAG is one of a handful of research centres in the world that are looking at theoretical models, methodological approaches and concepts for steering higher education systems in a global context. It is also home to the UNESCO Chair in Comparative Education Policy.

Header image caption: View of interior inside the Ulster University new Belfast campus Block C.

TABLE: Roles and Missions of the University

RegimeRole and missions
Medieval UniversityServing God and Church; Serving Science
Westphalian UniversityServing Science; Serving State and Nation
Postmodern UniversityServing Society and Humanity; Serving the Market

Source: Marie-Laure Salles-Djelic, “Scholars in the Audit Society: Understanding our Contemporary Iron Cage”, in Scholars in Action: Past – Present – Future, ed. Lars Engwall (Uppsala Universitet, 2012), p. 99.

DEFINITIONS: Selection of Terms Related to Higher Education


A university (from Latin universitas “a whole”) is an institution of higher (or tertiary) education and research which awards academic degrees in several academic disciplines. Universities typically offer both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. The word university is derived from the Latin phrase universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means “community of teachers and scholars”. (Wikipedia)

Higher education

Higher education, also called post-secondary education, third-level or tertiary education, is an optional final stage of formal learning that occurs after completion of secondary education. This consists of universities, colleges and polytechnics that offer formal degrees beyond high school or secondary school education. The right of access to higher education is mentioned in a number of international human rights instruments. The UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 declares, in Article 13, that “higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education”. (Wikipedia)


A college (Latin collegium) is an educational institution or a constituent part of one. In most of the world, a college may be a high school or secondary school, a college of further education, a training institution that awards trade qualifications, a higher-education provider that does not have university status (often without its own degree-awarding powers), or a constituent part of a university. The word is generally also used as a synonym for a university in the US. (Wikipedia)


Apprenticeship is a system for training a new generation of practitioners of a trade or profession with on-the-job training and often some accompanying study (classroom work and reading). Apprenticeships can also enable practitioners to gain a license to practice in a regulated occupation. Most of their training is done while working for an employer who helps the apprentices learn their trade or profession, in exchange for their continued labor for an agreed period after they have achieved measurable competencies. (Wikipedia)

Information society

An information society is a society where the usage, creation, distribution, manipulation and integration of information is a significant activity. Its main drivers are information and communication technologies, which have resulted in rapid growth of a variety of forms of information. Proponents of this theory posit that these technologies are impacting most important forms of social organisation, including education, economy, health, government, warfare, and levels of democracy. (Wikipedia)

Knowledge society

A knowledge society generates, shares and makes available to all members of the society knowledge that may be used to improve the human condition. A knowledge society differs from an information society in that the former serves to transform information into resources that allow society to take effective action, while the latter only creates and disseminates the raw data. The capacity to gather and analyse information has existed throughout human history. However, the idea of the present-day knowledge society is based on the vast increase in data creation and information dissemination that results from the innovation of information technologies. (Wikipedia)


TABLE: The Top 12 Host Countries of International Students in 2022 (by number of students)


Source: Project Atlas.

Info Box

GRAPH: The Twelve Countries with the Most Universities in 2023

Info Box

BOX: The Humboldtian Model of Higher Education

The Humboldtian model of higher education or Humboldt’s Ideal is a concept of academic education that emerged in the early 19th century and whose core idea is a holistic combination of research and studies. It integrates the arts and sciences with research to achieve both comprehensive general learning and cultural knowledge. Several elements of the Humboldtian model heavily influenced and subsequently became part of the concept of the research university. The Humboldtian model goes back to Wilhelm von Humboldt, a Prussian philosopher, government functionary and diplomat who, in the time of the Prussian reforms, relied on a growing, educated middle class to promote his claims about general education.

As a privy councillor in the Interior Ministry, he reformed the Prussian education system according to humanist principles. He founded the University of Berlin, appointing distinguished scholars to both teach and conduct research there. Several scholars have labeled him the most influential education official in German history. Humboldt sought to create an educational system based on unbiased knowledge and analysis, combining research and teaching while allowing students to choose their own course of study. The University of Berlin was later named the Humboldt University of Berlin, after him and his brother, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. His educational model went beyond vocational training in Germany.

In a letter to the Prussian king, he wrote: “There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without. People obviously cannot be good craftworkers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens. If this basis is laid through schooling, vocational skills are easily acquired later on, and a person is always free to move from one occupation to another, as so often happens in life.”

The philosopher and former State Minister for Culture of the Federal Republic of Germany, Julian Nida-Rümelin, has criticised discrepancies between Humboldt’s ideals and the contemporary European education policy, which narrowly understands education as preparation for the labor market, arguing instead that one needs to decide between McKinsey’s and Humboldt’s ideals.



VIDEO: What Are Assets, and Why Do They Matter?

Additional information: https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/universities-and-unicorns/.
Source: Science Animated, https://sciani.com.


VIDEO: What Are the Key Tensions in Educational Technology?

Additional information: https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/universities-and-unicorns/.
Science Animated, https://sciani.com/.

VIDEO: The UNESCO Chair in Comparative Education Policy, with Chanwoong Baek

Research Office, Geneva Graduate Institute.

VIDEO: University in Question, with Marie-Laure Salles

Research Office, Geneva Graduate Institute

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