The Future of Higher Education: An open and evolving sector scan in 2019

Earlier in this blog, I noted the need for social work and social work educators to understand the past, present and future of higher education. My previous work included in this space was an indepth review of resources associated with the concept of neo-liberalism in higher education.

As a profession, new social workers and social work knowledge is produced in the academy. Our ethics and values dictate that this knowledge grows out of real world dynamics and partnerships in real communities. Social work knowledge has found its primary home in university and college spaces – and our “home” is undergoing some powerful evolution. Some of it is important and good – some of it is deeply challenging and concerning.

That said, there is a whole sector of futures practice that is focused on the future of higher education. Many challenge that it is in a particularly dynamic state of change, increasingly precarious, and at risk of growing instability as fiscal, legal, and labor issues continue to become more complex. Trend analysts describe plentiful signals regarding shifts in play and on the horizon – and most of these predict growing closures and/or mergers of colleges and universities. Change, they say, is coming.

I’ve been building this resource list for some time as I navigate my own futures journey. I have a particular affinity for emerging knowledge on the future of public higher education, and I’m not alone. If you haven’t become aware of it, there will be a national gathering this fall to explore the future of public higher education on the east coast.

THIS resource list is not specific to the public sector – it is a gathering of a broad array of items focused on both public and private higher education issues.

As with my other resource lists, this bibliography is ever in a state of evolution and revision. As is our strength as social workers – my aim is to prepare social work educator leaders to understand the deeply contextual nature of our work as generators, leaders and protectors of social work knowledge, emerging research and education.

If our goal is to thrive in the social work education practice environment of the future – we will need unprecidented levels of creativity, agility, collective intelligence and FORESIGHTFULNESS. We should resist the urge (and sometimes incentives) to compete, but rather seek pathways to elevate and collaborate for a greater good in the future of our knowledge and our professional workforce, even as we continue to innovate.

A special note, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I’d like to offer a reminder that this resource list is not, and is not intended to be, and indepth review of the literature. Rather, this is a horizon-based sector scan focused on relatively recent resources in the academic, practice, trade press, and popular press on the future of higher education. There are a couple of these that I find very valuable and may “agree” with in terms of my predispositions – others less so. The greater value is in scanning what is here and thinking through what these mentions reveal as a whole about what might be happening, what might be coming. Futures practice involves looking for and finding patterns that imply a trajectory we may yet have the power to influence.

To learn more, check out my bibliography/resource list called The Future of Higher Education – Selected New Resources here.

Neoliberalism and Higher Education – an Annotated Bibliography

In order for me to participate in futures work within higher education in a way that fits with my values – I needed to sharpen my tools and refresh my own thinking about the forces shaping the contemporary landscape of colleges and universities. As I aim for a better understanding, tools and strategies to be part of the preservation of our sector as it goes through (some needed) significant reforms and changes, as well as truly monumental challenges in the coming years, it is essential to understand neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is widely discussed as a huge factor in the evolution of higher education – and in largely destructive ways. In a VERY simplified definition, neoliberalism reflects a pervasive “marketization” of formerly non-market resources within community life.

Anyone who works in higher education (particularly public higher ed) understands this phenomenon at the “gut” level…we’ve all been dealing with a perpetual cycle of decreasing funding, increasing expectations regarding complex accountability and accreditation systems, increasing pressures to expand among other elements.

It is worth noting that I’m not at all against accountability – I’m an advocate for continuous quality improvement, revising and updating outmoded methods (where they might be appropriate) and finally, widening our relevance and success with all members of our communities. Most academics I know are very committed to the best quality, at the most reasonable cost possible for their students – and most are dismayed at the increasingly market-driven reality that higher education has become.

But many suggest that we’ve long since left the land of “earnest and quality public administration” and entered spaces of higher education that are increasingly (and some would say dangerously) neoliberal spaces. This reality is beyond the scope of any one institution – this is structural, it is deep, and it is happening in many if not most institutions of higher learning here in the U.S. and beyond.

What is neoliberalism in a fuller sense? This 2017 article from the Guardian provides a strong overview and provides a helpful historical context.

This is an excellent brief video – must watching for an accessible orientation to the concept of neoliberalism.

For a deeper academic analysis of neoliberalism in general and globally, there is a brand new edition of the journal Globalizations dedicated to the topic – the introductory essay is open access. Here’s one more general overview piece about the history, definition and current trajectory of neoliberalism.

I completed a literature review to do a deeper dive as it relates to neoliberalism and higher education to simply extend my own literacy on this topic – and this link will lead you to the work that I completed.

Can and should a neo-liberal lens, language and movement be stopped or interrupted? Can a lens of higher education (and all that both promises and delivered) be restored and reinforced for the future? I sincerely believe we can only get there if we continue to learn what we are up against, and join together (rather than compete) to make progress. The future I want to help create and protect has done exactly this.

Note: Neoliberalism has had a huge impact on social work practice throughout the U.S. (and beyond) as well, and that topic is worthy of its own discussion. This particular blog entry focuses on our “home” as social work educators.