Universities face ‘mission overload’, says report

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As pressure grows on higher education institutes to raise their economic competitiveness and live up to new social responsibilities, a forward-looking study on the subject argues that future universities could well face a “mission overload”.

While many argue that universities play a central role in building a European ‘knowledge society’, there is a risk that as the pressure to do so grows, “the university is actually endangered and risks losing its key position and leadership role in the generation and dissemination of knowledge,” states a European Science Foundation (ESF) report on the future of higher education published in early July.

After developing the knowledge society was established as a central political objective in the EU’s Lisbon Agenda, all eyes are indeed fixed on reforming European higher education as a crucial step towards delivering this goal. In parallel, the European Commission is urging the EU 27 to reform their national systems and pushing for more academia-business cooperation to make universities deliver more economically and societally-relevant research that industry can turn into innovation.

But the report criticises the increased overall pressure to make universities more responsive to both the political and business worlds, culture and students and teachers as well as other levels of the education system. Looking at these goals “with a critical eye,” the authors of the report note that “it can immediately be seen that these multiple expectations describe higher education from the outside, looking in”. 

In addition, they argue that “the effects of growing expectations and the potential ‘mission overload’ of higher education and research” are misunderstood and underline that no operational guidelines exist on how higher education should concretely evolve to face these challenges.

One focus of the ESF report, based on a two-year examination of higher education within a wider context of social science research, was namely to analyse the roles higher education is expected to play in the much-hyped ‘knowledge society’. As a result, the authors warn that universities actually risk losing their role in the overall future development of society and suggest that “the needs of the knowledge society might be better served by institutions other than higher education”.

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