The UNESCO-based International Association of Universities will convene its 14th General Conference on November 27, 2012 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The conference is titled "Higher Education and the Global Agenda: Alternatives Paths to the Future." IAU has framed the conference with three important and timely thematic questions:
1. Are higher education institutions addressing the challenges facing humanity?
2. How and where are current dominant funding models steering higher education and research?
3. Is globalization setting a new agenda for internationalization of higher education?
First, I’ll answer IAU's questions immediately below. Then I'll provide a rationale for one "alternative path to the future" based on creating an open, nonprofit, nongovernmental economic governance organization for the credentialing marketplace: the global Education Leadership Commons. The purpose of the global ELC would be to scale up educational justice and educational attainment by opening up the credentialing marketplace, which would require realigning economic rights and responsibilities among credentialers and their external investors – students/families, governments, donors, employers, and suppliers.
1. Higher education has long addressed the challenges facing humanity, but not at the scale and in the timeframe now expected.
2. Today's dominant funding model compensates credit hours attempted, not credentials awarded, and is out of synch with humanity’s expanding need for higher learning at lower costs and greater returns to all invested beneficiaries. Credentialed higher learning will have to become more affordable to both the expanding economic demographic of low-and middle-income students and to the governments and institutions that help financially support them.
3. Higher education will be internationalized, not so much by institutions attracting students from abroad, building campuses abroad, and offering study-abroad programs, as by adapting the technology-enabled “flattening” models for partnering and externally sourcing described a few years ago in Thomas Friedman’s “flat-world” account of globalization. New cross-boundary partnerships will emerge among educational institutions, governments, nongovernmental organizations, employers, and commercial suppliers.
On November 28, my dinner presentation to conference attendees will address all three IAU themes in more depth by drawing on arguments from my 2012 paper, "Is Education's Past Its 2050 Prologue?" The paper was published in conjunction with the 80th anniversary celebration of the University of North Carolina's School of Information and Library Science. The celebration concluded with an "Information Professionals 2050 Summit and Conference" on June 4-5, 2012. At the invitation of Dean Gary Marchionini, I wrote about and then discussed "education in 2050” during the June event.
Neither Dean Marchionini nor I would presume to predict the nature of education in 2050. We nevertheless agree that education is already under pressure to credential more people to higher levels of learning attainment. This pressure reflects the primary policy strategy in many modern nations for focusing education’s attention on preparing students to help advance and sustain social, economic, and environmental justice.
Many colleges and universities today still set their sights solely on becoming (or remaining) among the best in the world. Competition is desirable, but can be limiting at a time when humanity’s habitat and socioeconomic flash points evidence a collective need to focus higher education's attention on becoming best for the world – a phrase borrowed from Sister Candace Introcaso, president of La Roche College. That's why progressive policy leaders are asking educators to scale up educational attainment: the proportion of an adult population holding a trusted, postsecondary credential (degree or certificate). For example, President Obama's attainment goal is to scale up the attainment proportion from 40% to 60% in ten years, thereby enlarging the U.S. population of credentialed adults from around 80 million to over 120 million, a tall order. Many other countries have their own attainment proportion goals and timeframes.
Scaling up attainment proportions accordingly is at the heart of IAU’s theme 1, and arguably will remain the dominant thread in education policy worldwide. We must expand the attainment pool of postsecondary credentialed people not only as a proportion of population, but also in its scientific and technical expertise and its humanistic and civic habits of mind that nurture the mutual respect and cooperation so essential to addressing humanity’s grand challenges.
The attainment challenge is not only about scale and skills, but also about the interdependencies in and among its various dimensions, which are as complex as the interdependencies intrinsic to globalization and its challenges to humanity. Consider how the globalized economy sputters here and there and threatens havoc everywhere. Global warming continues apace, while the green economy wavers. Too many people suffer from the ravages of war, hunger, and other cruel injustices. Meanwhile, well-intentioned attempts by the U.N. and other organizations to advance and sustain social, economic, and environmental justice are too often stymied by the difficulty of balancing rights and responsibilities among the negotiating parties who are typically facing a tragedy of the commons in which special interests, intentionally or not, destroy or damage the value of a common good to the detriment of all of its economic beneficiaries.
Even the Internet/World Wide Web, an obvious common good that has spawned exponential growth in economic and social wealth, is not exempt from such contentious issues. A telecommunications giant, for example, might unilaterally attempt to favor the Internet traffic of its large customers to the detriment of other organizational and consumer traffic that flows through the Internet, thereby risking a tragedy of the Internet commons. The Internet Society was created to mitigate such risks, and has succeeded by governing open internetworking standards and the open processes used to advance them. This open, consensus-building governance model has protected the seminal democratic networking principle that all Internet traffic is created equal.
Likewise the core democratic principle that all people are created equal must become more personally actionable than ever in the form of affordable access to higher learning and quality-assured credentialing. We can't risk a tragedy of the learning and credentialing commons, because it is the joint public and private investment most likely to mitigate the challenges facing humanity. We need to focus on educational justice, if we are to make higher learning more affordable to the world's expanding economic demographic of low- and middle-income people. Meanwhile, public financial aid to students is shrinking in many parts of the world, while annual per-credential operating expenditures are not decreasing at most colleges and universities. The result is a three-way affordability conundrum: how to make credentialing processes more affordable to low- and middle-income students and also to the institutions and governments that support those students.
With the IAU’s three themes in mind, we summarize humanity’s challenges as follows:
Humanity’s Grand Challenge: Expand and sustain social, economic, environmental, and educational justice.
The credentialing marketplace has become a common good – both a public and private good. It must be advanced and sustained as the delivery mechanism for educational justice and attainment at scale, which are essential to the advancement and sustainability of social, economic, and environmental justice. We must learn how to mitigate the risk of a tragedy of the credentialing commons while globally scaling up educational justice and attainment. Two Nobel Laureates in Economics and their work come to mind: Ronald Coase (1991 prize winner) and Elinor Ostrom (2009 prize winner who died in June, 2012).
Coase’s 1937 article, The Nature of the Firm, posited that “transaction costs” and the management friction they create accounted for the burgeoning size and overhead of the firms of the times. In our times, however, the Internet/Web has seriously diminished that friction and fueled globalization. Among the results are innovative, agile business models that rely on partnering and external sourcing to flatten overhead and bureaucracy, as illustrated by Thomas Friedman’s examples in his “flat-world” book. Traditional educational institutions, in contrast, continue to operate under financial models similar to the high overhead, bureaucratic, not so agile firms of the 20th century.
Elinor Ostrom’s prize-winning work on the “economic governance of the commons” raises intriguing possibilities for the economic governance of the credentialing commons. These possibilities deserve attention from both education’s internal economic beneficiaries and external investor beneficiaries – students, families, donors, governments, employers, and suppliers. In her focus on natural resource commons, Ostrom found that an open economic governance model designed to balance economic rights and responsibilities fairly among all economic beneficiary groups is the best bet for mitigating the risk of a tragedy of the commons. Neither government nor other special public or private interests should be favored over other economic beneficiary groups.
Open economic governance is already working outside of the domain of natural resources. The Internet Society described earlier is but one of many examples. Indeed, the Internet Society has been so successful that the Internet/Web continues to empower exponential growth in social and economic wealth – exactly what progressive policy leaders hope will result from scaling up educational justice and attainment. Perhaps the biggest barrier to scaling up attainment is the three-way affordability conundrum (see above), which is an economic issue directly related to educational justice. The economics of the current credentialing marketplace are working against scaling up educational justice and attainment.
Over the past two years, I have proposed and written about an open economic governance model for the credentialing marketplace. The model is described as the nonprofit, nongovernmental Education Leadership Commons in the already cited paper, "Is Education's Past Its 2050 Prologue?"
The paper includes ideas for how the ELC might be structured (along the lines of the successful Internet Society) to rebalance rights and responsibilities among credentialers and external investors in the credentialing marketplace – especially students and governments, among others. One such idea would have government commit to needs-tested financial aid (and/or a tax credit) in an amount projected annually from tax data, starting at birth. To remain eligible for such aid, a student would further have to submit at age 14 (or thereabouts), and periodically thereafter, to a constructivist, age-appropriate evaluation of basic communication fluencies and critical thinking skills – along the lines of OECD’s PISA and AHELO evaluations or other independent evaluations. Continuing eligibility would depend on re-submitting to an evaluation on schedule, but would not depend on any percentile ranking on the evaluation.
Any institution accepting a student’s financial aid would be obligated to report some to-be-determined universal high-level accountability metrics. For example, these two annualized ratios taken together could become an annual measure of credentialing productivity in peer groupings: 1) the ratio of credentials granted annually to annual unduplicated headcount, and 2) the ratio of annual operating expenses to credentials granted annually.
Government and other research centers would have access to the aggregated, privacy-secured data from the above protocols, and students would control their personal data (“my data”). The paper includes a matrix of rights and responsibilities that further illuminates the basic idea that earned, needs-tested financial aid and earned tax credits could be an economic lever for expanding and sustaining educational justice and educational attainment.
The paper also includes examples of how the ELC might be structured and openly operated to create a more open and agile credentialing marketplace.
Most nations expect the credentialing marketplace to be neither solely a private good nor solely a (universally free) public good. The former would leave educational justice unfulfilled and, thus, educational attainment goals unmet. The latter would be financially untenable in most nations, and would be questionable policy, even if affordable.
Those who doubt my policy comment above should reflect on Kris Kristofferson's lyric from the 1960s that "freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose." With rights must come responsibilities, and vice versa. That's why credentialing's scalability and funding models must be harmonized, if educational justice and educational attainment are to proceed forward hand in hand to help meet humanity's major challenges.