Institutions of higher education are facing massive social, cultural, technological, economic and political challenges both at home and globally. Indeed, the nebulae of higher education institutions – from research-intensive and undergraduate-focused universities to more applied-learning focused colleges and polytechnics, from start-up, online-based certificate and degree programs to the burgeoning fields of continuing, professional and executive educational centres – problematize what community means in an increasingly globally integrated world.
Much research has shown how higher education institutions are key players in local communities, supporting the connections between employers, students, residents, government, nonprofits and other stakeholders in driving local economic development, building social and cultural capital and nurturing technological entrepreneurship (Council of Ontario Universities 2012, Ernst & Young 2012). Many universities, eager to shed ivory-tower stereotypes and increasingly cognizant of their community-building role, have built linkages to these local and regional stakeholders and encouraged applied and community-relevant research agendas from their faculty (Council of Ontario Universities 2015). In Ontario, Canada, where I live and work, this is an important goal for the colleges that have expanded their role of preparing workers for a constantly changing job market to building applied research capacity that more directly addresses the challenges of job creation, innovation, entrepreneurship, social inclusion and participation, and a variety of social problems facing culturally diverse, post-industrial, slower-growing nations such as Canada.
Yet, universities and colleges alike in Canada and elsewhere in the Commonwealth – Australia and UK are prime examples – have accelerated their efforts to court international students to help grow and sustain themselves (Financial Times (FT) 2014). Indeed, as FT reports, the growing middle class in faster-growing countries such as India and China, are increasingly mobile and ‘shop’ globally for their education needs. Targeted programs to support and expand the internationalization of higher education to satisfy this demand is growing theme at postsecondary conferences and campuses. Given this, what does community mean for the contemporary institution of higher learning? While they may maintain their critical role in building the talent for the next generation, this talent is more footloose than ever before and may work and contribute to the building of communities, the expansion of job markets and technological innovation far from the physical footprint of where the university is situated.
This is very complicated as in many countries, including Canada, postsecondary institutions remain largely publicly funded, although growing private investment and the deregulation of tuition is some of the professional schools (e.g., law, business, medicine) is changing this dynamic. As public institutions, there are expectations that colleges and universities serve the educational needs and demands of their local and regional publics, their ‘community’. However, internationalization problematizes this demand; even as postsecondary institutions recognize their valuable role in supporting local and regional job markets they are competing for students (and increasingly scarce revenue) in a global marketplace, which also includes the challenges of the MOOCs and online universities who are whittling away at their former oligopoly.
Yet, I would urge those of us in higher education to not consider it as an either/or situation, for the challenges of community that we face are also being faced by other institutions, public and private: namely, how to create a more nimble and responsive operating environment which meets and fulfills the needs of and obligation to its stakeholders (learners, staff, faculty and the local/regional community), yet can scale this environment up and down, from the immediate neighbourhood in which it is situated to the borderless globalized and virtual education-seeking communities. In the post-2015 world, the communities that universities serve and build are necessarily plural.
Council of Ontario Universities. 2012. Position Paper on Graduate Education in Ontario. Toronto, Canada
Council of Ontario Universities. 2015. Change Agent. Ontario’s Universities: Transforming Communities, Transforming Lives. Toronto, Canada.
Ernst & Young. 2012. University of the future. Melbourne: Australia
Financial Times (FT). 2014. The Future of the University. Special report. October 7. London, UK.