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How Large Systems Change

Proclamations of systemic change, particularly in higher education, are more hype than reality. In spite of growing enrolments and expansion of higher education systems worldwide, a small number of folks, generally untethered from reality, are proclaiming higher education as a system in demise. These fine folks haver rhetoric and anecdote as their main evidence. Fortunately, we have data from UNESCO, OECD, global higher education student growth, triple helix models of university-gov’t-society, models of universities as regional economic engines, and a plethora of other data to suggest that the “universities are dying” crowd is enjoying a sharp break from evidence and reality.

Universities will continue to exist. They will continue to play a greater and a greater role in society and business. My view is the exact opposite of the “end is near” hype of higher education: I believe we are entering a golden era for universities, a period of rapid expansion of the idea of a university and how it serves society and knowledge economies. While there is some pressure, most pronounced in the US, for change to the big residential model of higher education, globally the demand is strong knowledge institutions. These institutions will take on additional forms from physical campuses but their societal role will increase and remain significant.

Put another way, society is not moving “from universities to something else” but instead, a entering a period of “from universities to more diversification of universities”. Which, when you sit back and think about it, makes sense. Why, as the knowledge economy expands, would we expect to see knowledge producing systems decline? We are living longer, entering multiple careers during our working lives, and in need of a life-wide learning model, rather than the four year model we have today. Universities are set to become more prominent than they have ever been.

I recently delivered a talk at UniSA on the topic of how large systems change. Big systems, in periods of big change, experience structural and institutional change. As argued above, universities will become something more than they are today, but the change is an increase in influence, not a decrease in relevance. Slides are below.