Diagram evolution
Evolution American style © Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

Who will bring about change?

In reviewing Ehlers and Schneckenberg’s ‘Changing Cultures in Higher Education‘, I began to wonder if or how the modern university will be changed. ‘Changing Cultures’ is written primarily by what I call disenfranchised insiders, namely professional educational technologists and e-learning specialists who have knowledge but limited power in decision-making, because they are not mainstream, discipline-based faculty. This means they rarely rise to positions of power, becoming for instance Vice-Presidents Academic or Deans, and may not even be represented in Senate. Although I do not wish to undervalue their contribution to policy making, disenfranchised insiders have to work through others to champion their cause.

‘Changing Cultures’ provides powerful arguments and strategies for change, but we are talking about changing organizational culture, and persuasive arguments based on logic alone will not bring about such changes. It is worth then considering what are likely to be the most powerful sources of change. To do this means looking at the key stakeholders who do have power, recognizing that decision-making is always a balance between competing interest groups.


Faculty are still the most powerful decision-makers in a collegial university. They have a great deal of autonomy, and it is difficult if not impossible to make them do what they don’t want to do, particularly in the area of teaching and learning. No deep change is likely to happen without at least the consent of faculty. However, as has been argued many times on this site, the incentives for changing teaching methods are far less than for undertaking research. Furthermore, it is faculty themselves who decide the prime incentives for tenure and promotion. What will motivate faculty to change?

A number of people have written about this. One approach is being spearheaded by Tom Carey, who is trying to build a community of scholars interested in improving their teaching, based on collaboration, research and publication (see Knowledge Exchange for Exemplary Teaching in Higher Education).

Faculty development is another route. Two presidents of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Julia Christensen Hughes and Joy Mighty, have just published a book called ‘Taking Stock’, which calls for radical changes in university teaching based on research on teaching and learning, but as Julia Christensen Hughes herself acknowledges in an article in the Globe and Mail on Monday (September 6, 2010), faculty development is voluntary, and in many institutions less than 10 per cent of faculty take any form of training or development in teaching.

Gradually, over time, faculty are changing. More and more are adopting technology, although in most cases it is to enhance traditional teaching methods, such as clickers or lecture capture. Eventually, though, some are recognising that with technology, teaching can be designed differently, with more benefits to students, but this tends to result in pockets of innovation, without the institution as a whole radically changing. If left to faculty alone, the university will change, but very slowly.

Students (and their parents)

Students are becoming more influential stakeholders, partly because through tuition fees they (or their parents) are now the direct source of about 30 to 40 per cent of university revenues in Canada, and over 60 per cent in the USA. Students are also increasingly comfortable and familiar with technology, so increasingly universities are paying attention to student voices in decision-making (particularly around technology). We have also seen that organizations such as the Ontario Undergraduate Students Association can and do get the ear of government when changes to the higher education system are being proposed (see Ontario Students’ Vision for the Ontario Online Institute). They are capable of organizing themselves, doing policy research, and making powerful recommendations for change.

However, students are not specialists in the use of technology for teaching. They do not know what academic skills or competencies are expected of them nor know which technologies and teaching methods are most appropriate to develop such skills. That is the job of the instructor. Thus students understandably look to their instructors for guidance on what technologies to use for study, and how to use them. The institutional response to students’ use of technology is sometimes quite trivial. It’s nice that university presidents occasionally use Twitter to communicate with students, but this does not change the basic way in which teaching is delivered. Here students rightly expect leadership and guidance from the institution.


In Canada, most governments still provide 60 to 70 per cent of the revenues for universities. Even in the USA, which has the lowest percentage of revenues coming from government than any other country in the OECD, government still provides over one third of institutional revenues, and also contributes heavily to student loans and grants, which are then used at least in part to pay tuition fees. Thus governments are obviously a key stakeholder. However in most economically advanced countries, universities jealousy protect their autonomy, for good reasons. Thus governments are rightly very cautious in setting policies for particular institutions.

Nevertheless, most governments do have higher education policies at a strategic or system level, such as increasing access, regulating accreditation, and setting broad quality standards. Most governments see a direct connection between higher education and economic development. The OECD argues that governments get back twice what they invest in higher education in increased tax revenue from graduates. It therefore matters a great deal to governments whether higher education institutions are effective. It would be an irresponsible government that would stand by as universities become increasingly unaffordable, inefficent, and fail to produce the quality of graduates needed in a knowledge-based economy.

However, governments themselves do not have the necessary skills or knowledge to suggest new organizational models for universities. Indeed, although governments in the 1960s and 1970s seemed willing to experiment with a variety of post-secondary institutional models, such as polytechnics, open universities, and community colleges, in recent years there has been a drift to a single model for all post-secondary institutions, the comprehensive research university, with very similar governance structures, methods of funding, and modes of organization. What is needed now is more diversity, and more experimentation in post-secondary institutional models that can lever the advantages of modern technology.

The economy

It was not an alternative ideology or foreign armed forces that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the failure of its economy. We have seen that the 2008 recession has ravaged government funding for higher education in a number of jurisdictions (the states of California and New York, and the United Kingdom, for example). As a result, universities in those jurisdictions are under enormous financial stress.

However, will a crisis result necessarily in radical and successful change in institutional models? (For instance, the University of California is considering offering first year courses entirely online). Maybe, but if the experience of the Soviet Union is anything to go by, solutions that might work in other contexts will be inappropriately applied. For example, automation may be seen as a solution for replacing instructors, without realising that learning is a transactional process that involves social as well as technical activities. In other words, costs will be cut, but quality will suffer. Planning as a result of a crisis is best avoided if possible.

Evolution or revolution?

I believe that if left to themselves, universities will slowly evolve, and gradually introduce radically different methods of teaching and new organizational models that both exploit the affordances of technology and develop the kinds of graduates needed in the 21st century. However, this will be a slow and painful process. In some cases, it will be too slow and too painful.

I believe governments can play a crucial role in speeding up the reform of the university, but not through edicts or direct action themselves. One method would be to set up a task force – similar to the Robbins Committee in Britain in the 1960s that led to the development of a whole new set of new universities – that involves representatives from the universities themselves, government, and independent stakeholders, such as students and business, to make recommendations about new models of post-secondary institution, perhaps operating in parallel with more traditional models.

Another way is to develop an international movement for higher education reform that brings together those seeking change, together with  representatives from government and university administrations, to encourage change from within existing institutions.

My view is that universities do need to change quite radically, and some form of direct intervention is needed to speed up the reform of the university. In other words, we need to build on academic contributions that suggest the need for and methods of change, and move these into some kind of movement for change. The stakes are high. Those countries that move quickly and successfully to bring about the much needed changes in universities will reap enormous benefits, educationally, economically and socially.

This leaves me with questions for you as readers:

1. Do universities need reform? Are they meeting the needs of the 21st century as well as can be expected, or do they need to change more quickly?

2. If they do need to change, what models or visions can we offer? What role should technology play in these models or visions?

3. If change is needed, what is the best way to bring about change in a timely and orderly manner? Or should we not worry about whether it is orderly?

4. Who will join me on the ramparts with my banner?

Image French revolution
French revolution


Ehlers, U-D. and Schneckenberg, D. (eds. ) Changing Cultures in Higher Education: Moving Ahead to Future Learning Heidelberg/London/New York: Springer, 610 pp, US$129.00

Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (2010) Taking Stock: Research into Teaching and learning in Higher Education Montréal QC: McGill-Queens University Press, 350 pp, C$85.00

OECD (2010) Education at a Glance Paris: OECD

Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (2010) The Ontario Online Institute: Students’ Vision for Opening Ontario’s Classrooms Toronto ON: OUSA


  1. Tony, the pressing need to reform the tertiary system is becoming a louder and louder voice. Have you read DIY U by Anya Kamenetz? It summarises this voice very well. I am a young academic in the Australian tertiary system who is looking for alternative career paths because I can’t imagine doing what I am doing for the next 30 years. I love learning, and I love elearning, but the higher ed system depresses me. I am a member of that younger group of academics who started using computers at a young age (I was 9 when we got our first home computer in 1982) and it is obvious to me that the digital divide is no longer about economical differences between nations but generational differences.

  2. Hi Tony,
    Excellent post.

    I have taken the liberty of responding at length at http://www.masmithers.com/2010/09/08/reforming-the-university-evolution-or-revolution-a-response/

    In summary, to answer your questions:

    1. Do universities need reform? Are they meeting the needs of the 21st century as well as can be expected, or do they need to change more quickly?

    Yes universities need reform.

    No I don’t think universities are meeting the needs of the 21st Century. They are not nearly flexible enough in the way they organise learning or the qualifications that they award and they remain far too focussed on the campus as the interface between faculty and students.

    Yes, they need to reform more quickly.

    2. If they do need to change, what models or visions can we offer? What role should technology play in these models or visions?

    They need a model based on:
    • Openness and Transparency
    • Flexibility
    • Rigorous Assessment

    Technology provides the platform upon which to provide openness, flexibility and rigorous assessment.

    3. If change is needed, what is the best way to bring about change in a timely and orderly manner? Or should we not worry about whether it is orderly?

    Cultural change from the top by embracing openness, transparency and flexibility together with a roadmap for getting there. It may not be orderly but I think I don’t think that is too important.

    4. Who will join me on the ramparts with my banner?

    I will but I am a disenfranchised insider so my voice doesn’t count for much.




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