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The Changing Role of the University in the 21st Century

12/6/2012 | German House New York

The Changing Role of the University in the 21st Century

Co-Sponsor: Social Science Research Center Berlin (Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung - WZB).

A rapidly changing economic environment and the expansion of the educational landscape are pushing the U.S. and Germany to provide career-focused university training at the undergraduate level. On December 6, 2012, as part of the German Center for Research and Innovation’s (GCRI) higher education series, Professors Jutta Allmendinger and Philip Altbach discussed some of the major challenges facing universities today.

The Bologna strategy profoundly changed the German academic system, leading to an increased number of enrollments students and more diverse student body. According to the German Federal Statistical Office, the overall number of students at German higher education institutions increased by 27% to 2.4 million in 2011 and will likely rise to 2.5 million in the winter semester 2012/2013.

Similarly, undergraduate enrollments in the U.S. increased 37%, from 13.2 million to 18.1 million between 2000 and 2010 and are expected to reach 20.6 million by 2021 (National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, 2012).

“We are in the middle of a fundamental transformation of the education system,” said Prof. Philip G. Altbach, Monan University Professor and Director of the Center of International Higher Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. While higher education has traditionally been accessible only to the elite, higher mass education (“massification”) is a global, revolutionary trend of the 21st century. Prof. Altbach highlighted this contradictory development in his talk: Massification has led to a growing global knowledge economy, he said, which has created an information society with a need for a workforce with qualifications that differ from the skill set for an industrial-based economy. This process brings profound challenges to the academic profession and the competitiveness of publicly-funded institutions, since they depend on the quality of research and education.

“How do we support basic research in an economically difficult context? And how do we support an environment in which the professors are paid to do good research?” asked Prof. Altbach. Today, 50% of professors in the U.S. have tenure. The other 50% are part-time professors with industry affiliations. According to Prof. Altbach, the emerging private, for-profit education sector, which spends more funds on student recruitment than teaching, needs to be held accountable in terms of educational quality standards. In order to have a successful mass education system, Prof. Altbach emphasized the need for a differentiated education system, as is the case in California.

According to Prof. Jutta Allmendinger, President of the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB,) and Professor of Educational Sociology and Labor Market Research at the Humboldt University Berlin, interest in the German universities of applied sciences (UAS) model is increasing. In Germany, two-thirds of engineers are trained at UAS, which combine vocational and academic training. Whereas this model provides students with transferable skills, it also allows for smooth transitions between academia and industry. In Germany, bachelor programs take three years, compared to four in the U.S. In order to create job-ready graduates, Prof. Allmendinger recommended extending the German bachelor’s program to four years: Students could benefit from a general liberal arts education. This would allow students more flexibility in developing an academic focus. A practical training phase would then prepare undergraduates to meet future employers’ demands. Prof Allmendinger suggested that we stop thinking of university education as the sole ultimate answer, since “we need to see the university system as one part of the whole German educational system.”

The discussion and accompanying Q&A session was moderated by GCRI Director, Dr. Joann Halpern.

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  • Featured Speakers

    • Jochen Wolter (Welcome Remarks)

      Consul, Head of Press and Public Information, Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany, New York

    • Prof. Jutta Allmendinger

      President, Social Science Research Center Berlin

    • Prof. Philip G. Altbach

      Founding Director, Center for International Higher Education, Lynch School of Education, Boston College