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The world cuisine of borderless knowledge

John Daniel sets the scene for the 'Universities in the 21st Century' conference in Singapore next week

This conference takes place at a time when many countries are showing an increasing similarity in the style of interaction between their governments and the universities. Countries like France and Spain, which used to have a Napoleonic higher education system controlled from the centre, are moving towards more regional responsibility, while the opposite is true of countries such as the United Kingdom. Most countries will probably move towards a balance between central and regional jurisdiction as in Australia.

Despite this convergence of mechanisms - and the blurring of other borders which no doubt will occur - different challenges exist for higher education in the developing and the industrialised worlds. In the developing world, the challenge is access, in the industrialised world it is cost. Merely to keep student participation rates constant in the developing world, one sizeable new university has to open every week to meet the demands of the young and growing population. If, because of lack of education, most of the world's youngsters turn into unemployed, unconnected and unstable adults we will all suffer, through threats to our security.

Since a borderless world makes it harder to impose values by authority, we are duty bound to see that access to education and training gives people the chance to expand their human skills and intellect. Throughout most of the industrialised world, supply and demand for higher education are roughly equal, though we might need more growth to meet demand from adults pursuing lifelong learning. However, it now costs 38 per cent of the average family income in the United States for someone to go to the average private university for a year. For public universities the cost is 14 per cent.

The issue is less obvious in countries where previous elitist university systems have meant that governments pay much of the cost. This is producing its own crisis. The UK government is second to none in its rhetoric about preparing people for the knowledge society of the future. Yet even if you are ready to pay you cannot go to a UK university after the state-funded quota is filled. Many in the UK believe that Australia has the solution in its Higher Education Contribution Scheme, which has made people realise that higher education has a cost and a value.

For the developing and the industrialised worlds the main task of universities will be to become more cost-effective. The title of my paper at next week's conference, Universities in the 21st century: Education in a Borderless World in Singapore, is Academics or Accountants? I shall examine the increasingly prevalent assumption that the way to promote cost-effectiveness is to put academic values on the back burner - or take them off the stove altogether. But, why, now that universities seem to be needed more than ever, do people want to abandon their principles?

Other anti-academic trends are also worrying. First the tendency to assess higher education in purely utilitarian and vocational terms. Second, attempts by funding bodies to separate teaching from research. Third, the way that universities, in the UK at least, downsize their staff at the first sign of financial difficulty.

However, rather than defend academic values by arguing from principle, I would adopt an empirical approach and look at the emergence of mega-universities, which has yielded the most striking increase in cost-effectiveness of universities in our lifetime. These 11 universities teach solely or mainly at a distance, they each have at least 100,000 students and they have unitary, not federal, structures.

Together, they enrol nearly three million people a year and each is its country's largest university, running at half - or less - of the average cost of campus institutions. The revenue they draw from public funds is lower and their income includes a large proportion of fees.

The best of the mega-universities have had strong political support, as in India, Thailand and the UK. This augers well for the establishment of virtual mega-universities which would work by networking existing campus institutions - such ideas seem to originate in the political domain rather than universities.

The most successful mega-universities combine greater cost-effectiveness with the will to invest for the achievement of efficiency gains. But carried to extreme, as in Korea and Indonesia, this could result in lower graduation rates. Other important factors are the provision of good learning materials, effective student support and good logistics. A final ingredient for success is that institutions have a more participative government structure and a greater sense of academic community, with individuals taking responsibility for the success of their students.

The experience of the mega-universities may be a guide to the likely success of the virtual mega-universities, should they become a reality - and an ultimate expression of education in a borderless world.

Sir John Daniel is vice chancellor of the Open University. The conference starts on Monday.

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