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Academic freedom for all

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WASHINGTON — Academic freedom is close to the hearts of many. Being able to teach what “needs” to be taught, to speak out and to pursue thoughts to wherever they may lead are some of the most crucial components of academia. In light of this accepted axiom it is surprising to learn about opposition to the free exercise of higher education around the world.

Soon the World Trade Organization will take up the discussion of liberalizing cross-border services as part of the Doha Round. In an era of the knowledge society, one would expect negotiators to support the free flow of higher education across national borders. To the contrary, there is substantial resistance to the integration of this sector into the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Only four of 148 WTO members have suggested more openness.

Many countries are held back by vigorous resistance from their own universities. In their Statement on Behalf of Higher Education Institutions Worldwide, university associations from around the world proclaim fundamental disagreement with international competition: “Trade frameworks are not designed to deal with the academic, research, or broader social and cultural purposes of higher education.”

There are several reasons why universities don’t want open markets for themselves. First is the reluctance to accept a role in an existing global framework. Administrators and professors around the world have consistently assured me that university issues are so special, specific and unique that the application of industry approaches to them would be heresy. As the editor of an important business journal put it, “Reviewers generally reject the notion that higher education is a ‘service.’ “

Second is an overwhelming unwillingness by universities in most nations to consider the benefits of an entrepreneurial system. Typically, funding comes from the government, salaries are set based on years of service and grants are awarded based on seniority. Rewards for university management come for the ability to manage coalitions and increase subsidies, rather than the capacity to raise funds or be market responsive. There are very few rewards for academic process innovation.

Third is an ingrained opposition to competition and market forces. Little confidence exists in the power of the market to assure quality. To the world, the evidence is quite clear that central planning has not worked. Yet for ideological and historical reasons, many universities around the globe remain the last vestiges of central planning.

Past centuries have seen few shifts in university structures and processes. If we could time-transport a Heidelberg professor from 1386 to one of today’s universities, that person would be a fully functional professional. There still is the classroom with the cathedra from which the professor expounds great thoughts and the seats from which students claim to listen. There still are the volumes to read, the papers to write and the ritualized exams to take. Mostly, one professor still offers only one field at one university, and students still receive their knowledge in one-course increments which, as if by magic, last exactly one semester, and obtain their degrees from only one location.

All this in an era characterized by technology-driven knowledge generation and information dissemination, global reach, cross fertilization of fields, substantial productivity enhancements and Six Sigma quality-control levels. It might appear as if higher education has not innovated at the same pace as other industries.

Where other sectors have used advances in telecommunications, technology, and ease of border crossing to make important progress in productivity, academia continues to increase expenses per student without improved returns. On this road, the academic industry will either decline into mass institutions of little value or offer higher education only for a select few.

Universities need more funding, more competition and more insights from around the globe. Student mobility around the world needs to be reinvigorated. Professors and researchers should move about more. Program content should be internationalized with increasing ease through distance learning and online education. Universities should be able to open up branches abroad or join forces with foreign entities. Competition for resources and students between the best institutions with a minimum of governmental inhibitions must let ventures succeed or fail. This, however, will only happen if GATS rules apply to the academic sector.

Advanced nations perhaps have to accommodate too many entrenched forces to achieve academic liberalization rapidly. The emerging nations, many of which have been excluded from the benefits of higher education, can achieve the greatest gains from global university liberalization. We should advocate the application of WTO rules now to cause improvements in academia to happen quickly and widely around the world.