Updates - NYIT Office of the President
The Role of Higher Education—Now and in the Future
Jun 17 2014

On June 12, 2014, Edward Guiliano, Ph.D., presented the following formal opening remarks at the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP) Triennial Conference, “Creating the Future of Higher Education,” in Yokohama, Japan.

The role of higher education—however we define it—has not changed since the emergence of the Academy. It is and will be to create the human capital, the knowledge, skills, and toolboxes, to serve society for the better good of its people.

Once those people were relatively local. Then the society being served was increasing glocal (a term coined in Japan), and now we are all aware it is increasingly global. The solutions to some of the big issues of the 21st century, from climate change to cybersecurity, cannot be solved locally. And education is the currency that crosses borders.

At the university level, we are educating more than 125 million students worldwide, in a world where only one in six humans live in a developed nation. By 2025, the number of students around the globe enrolled in higher education will reach 262 million. Nearly all of this growth will be in the developing world, with more than half in China and India alone.

In his seminal 19th-century work, The Idea of a University, John Henry Cardinal Newman noted that a college or university is a place “in which the intellect may safely range and speculate…It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge.” Simply put, universities were, and still continue to be, unrestricted markets where the free exchange of ideas reign.

According to Newman, universities are where knowledge is shared and where knowledge is created, which defines the classic role of teaching and research then and now at institutions of higher education. Implicit in those roles is the creation and sharing of knowledge for the betterment of society. Thus the traditional “service to the community and society” role at institutions of higher education—which has never been more evident than in today’s connected global society where the university’s role as an idea leader and essential partner in creating solutions to issues that transcend borders—is increasingly valued. In our connected and collaborative world, universities are striving to create global citizens with the cultural and academic literacies and tools that serve the greater society.

While universities as we know them are a millennium old, the majority of the world’s universities are barely 50 years old. Back in 1900, there were 977 institutions of higher learning in America, but there was not much need for a college education—the population was 76 million people and America as a nation still largely agrarian.

Only 2.3 percent of the 18-24 year-olds went on to college then, and only 382 doctoral degrees were awarded in 1900. The great age of higher education is just now blooming, and it is global. To compete in a knowledge economy, even when it comes to agriculture, brings a great need for advanced education. The master’s degrees of this century are becoming the bachelor’s degrees of last century and the high school degrees of the previous one.

In a knowledge-based economy, education is our greatest natural resource. As information sharing becomes more pervasive and the world shrinks, centers of higher learning will have a critical role that no one else can fill—not government, not K-12 education, not industry nor think-tanks, not even life experience. We must become the unique idea incubators where these competencies come together so that students can fully engage and learn how to leverage new technologies, and develop new solutions, approaches, and visions.

A good university should facilitate a zone of exploration where we promote new ideas, accept failure, reward creativity, breed innovation, and foster interdependent learning. This is important for our students today and may even be more important for the “screeners” generation who will be here before we know it.

So, in the world of Big Data and the communications revolution brought about by the Internet, the need for advanced education has never been more important. Its role remains the same, but its geography, challenges, and modalities are different. And universities’ historic place as centers where knowledge was created and where the free exchange of ideas reigned remains. However, instead of the last-century notion of a university as a place where information is collected and safeguarded, in today’s “connected” world, where through the Internet information is vastly accessible and enormous, it is at the universities where that “information” is analyzed and transformed into knowledge, skills, tools, and even technology…increasingly so…and increasingly necessary.


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