The New Global Universities: Reinventing Education in the 21st Century

Image of The New Global Universities: Reinventing Education in the 21st Century
Release Date: 
December 5, 2023
Princeton University Press
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“It's one thing to have a great idea (liberal education) and altogether another for these ambitious start-ups to survive and thrive. Remarkably, they do so.”

In an ironic twist, the applied liberal arts model is flourishing in recent university start-ups across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. These institutions contrast markedly with their far more conservative, change-averse, neoliberal counterparts in the United States.

But how to make a new start-up university and get it to fly? First, it has no storied track record, and, therefore, no branding or prestige value. Second, it’s really expensive to operate with no cost offsets from a large endowment; thus, tuition is high.  Third, there is the challenge of attracting high-quality faculty to a virtually non-existent institution where tenure is meaningless if the institutions falters and folds. Fourth, how do you create a 21st century curriculum that passes muster with far more hidebound accrediting agencies and lenders? Fifth, how do you create the infrastructure necessary for that 21st century institution (e.g., land, buildings, equipment, etc)?

Each start-up addresses these common challenges under different political, cultural, historical, and economic circumstances.

To understand the journey of how liberal education became a global phenomenon, it’s important to start at the beginning in Ancient Greece and Rome. The liberal arts are anchored to the notion that education should explore diverse subjects while challenging the mind to move beyond normative habit and convention. It is also training ground about methods of thought: how to collect information, analyze it, interpret it, and come not just to conclusions but also new knowledge. Note here that not once has liberal education been reduced to the arts and humanities. Nor is it reduced to some abstract life of the mind. Rather ideas are meant to be applied broadly across all discipline, and in the service of addressing real-world problems.

In the United States, where the liberal education model was most closely embraced, it passed through three institutional phases. In the early 19th century we see start-ups focusing on undergraduate education. This is followed by a second phase midcentury with an emphasis on focused disciplinary specialization. Finally, a third, hybrid form of education combines the two as the century closes, mostly embracing a Germanic model emphasizing a linear transmission of knowledge from professor to student along with a focus on application.

With a few exceptions, elite, private colleges and universities were the ones who remained committed to a liberal education model in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is those elite institutions and other allied thought leaders that are partnering with their counterparts across the globe to export the liberal education model and ethos.

Why is this approach so compelling globally? Penprase and Pickus focus on three key factors. First, the liberal arts champion intellectual nimbleness. In an era of profound change and disruption, the ability to analyze and understand vectors of change and then innovating to address unscripted problems and challenges is invaluable. This is what drives emerging “knowledge economies.” Second, accompanying this trend is a growing emphasis on cross-disciplinary knowledge that require an integrated approach to global challenges (e.g., environmental sustainability; public health; disasters; economic development; poverty and inequality). Indeed, a strong argument can be made that real intellectual creativity occurs at those interfaces between disciplines rather than at their core. Third, across the globe there is heightened social fragmentation (e.g., all manner of sectarian strife); increased emphasis on individualism over group solidarity; and an overall rise in intra- and inter-group conflict. Under these circumstances, people who are agile and wise global citizens are at a premium.

What follows are a series of case studies exploring the diverse manifestations of liberal education in the new global order: New York University Abu Dhabi (the honor’s college model); Yale-NUS (Singapore as Southeast Asian education hub); Olin College (liberal arts engineering in America); Fulbright University Vietnam (reuniting former adversaries in an emerging knowledge-economy institution); Ashoka University (building a home-grown, post-colonial, liberal arts university in India); Ashesi University (expats return home to build the liberal arts in Ghana); African Leadership University (more expats found a liberal arts university in South Africa); and Minerva University (an Ivy League online university for a global audience otherwise without access to a high-quality education).

It's one thing to have a great idea (liberal education) and altogether another for these ambitious start-ups to survive and thrive. Remarkably, they do so. On the cultural side of the equation, they built a brand, created prestige, and developed a strong organizational culture. On the material side, they were able to secure funding in support of their operations. On the institutional side, they were flexible, nimble, and resilient when unsurprisingly faced with threat, risk, and change.

So many studies of higher education focus on cultural dynamics, and for very good reasons. If an institution is lacking cultural capital, they can find themselves in dire straits. We see this in the United States with the closing of a number of rural, small, underendowed, expensive, private (and often religious) colleges and universities whose enrollments have been in long decline. So too we see a number of overbuilt state university systems undertaking various mergers and other life-support mechanisms for their struggling branch campuses.

However, the institutional side also merits close consideration. Higher education institutions in America tend to be very conservative; that is, change and risk averse. Often this is translated as a sclerotic focus on tradition – how things have always been done and organized. That kind of deep institutional rigidity makes them highly vulnerable to the diverse conditions of high volatility, both internal and external.

The global institutions explored in this book have none of that hidebound traditionalism. They are far less risk and change averse on one hand and far more nimble and adaptive on the other. Of the eight institutions outlined, seven survived. One, Yale-NUS, was absorbed into the National University of Singapore. That is a remarkable track record in the world of risky start-ups.

Penprase and Pickus lead us through a cutting-edge exploration of new, innovative global universities, and one that recenters the powerful teaching-learning approach of liberal education as a transformative experience for individuals, but also the regions and nations in which they serve and contribute.

If there is anything missing in this discussion, it is why this model is being now largely rejected in the United States. (Try branding yourself as a public liberal arts university and just see what happens!)

We could, then, quite rightly ask, “What happened to the United States as a global liberal education juggernaut?” Rewind to the early 1980s and the emergence of neoliberal policies, practices, and ideas that swept up higher education in its wake. There was a profound ideological shift in understanding the goal of a university education from a public good to a private one. Universities became increasingly corporatized and subject to an audit culture in the process. Furthermore, income and wealth generation became the hallmarks of educational value. Throw into this mix the tremendous reduction in state support for public higher education; a growing anti-intellectualism; and a deep erosion in the value assigned to a college degree. Those forces combined to drive higher education away from an emphasis on broad and deep knowledge in the service of a healthy civic-political culture toward one of narrow and technical mastery in pursuit of individual enrichment. As The New Global Universities shows us, we do this at our own peril.