Renu Khator is the chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of the University of Houston. She serves on the board of directors for the American Council on Education.
Several times a year, I have the privilege of receiving an international higher education delegation in my office in Houston. I am also invited to travel abroad to international conferences in such far-flung places as Inner Mongolia or to serve as an adviser to a new foreign university.
More often than not, they want advice about how to make their higher-education institutions more like those in America. That's understandable. Simply put, our system of higher education is the envy of the world. In this knowledge-based, "flat world" economy, there are few products as highly prized as an education from an American university.
But what do our international colleagues find so desirable in an American university?
First, it is the flexibility of student access.
I am constantly reminded that the American system is open to anyone at any time in one's life, at any pace one likes, and in any field one chooses (provided one has the means and qualifications). Only in America, I am told, is it possible to start your degree in one field at one university and complete it in another field at another university. Only in America is it possible to start as a full-time student, take a break, resume on a part- time basis, then go back full-time again.
At UH last semester, for example, our youngest graduate was 16, with dual undergraduate degrees in math and mechanical engineering. Our oldest was 86, with a master's degree in industrial engineering.
Second is the understanding that a robust group of talented faculty, when assembled, can do more than teach. It can also engage in research and innovation, not just out of curiosity, but as an expected academic obligation. Consequently, American universities dominate the world in publications, discoveries, and technology transfer—that is, in knowledge creation.
Last is the belief that universities, private and public, are in the business of knowledge regardless of national boundaries and funding sources. They collect talent from all around the world and educate students from every single nation on earth. It is only the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge that matters.
These three characteristics have allowed America to (a) serve a large number of students and (b) produce leaders who spur global innovation. For a long time, America has been able to balance both these endeavors. So, it's only logical that other countries facing the dual challenges of providing access and seeking global competitiveness look to American higher education for best practices.
America, however, must look ahead and move toward a new model.
It must build a new global university, a university that is as responsible to its immediate community as it is to communities everywhere else. Given the changing demographics of American society, universities cannot afford to ignore millions of Americans who are unable to gain access to college for one reason or another.
In the 20th century, American universities contributed to America's prosperity and America's prosperity, in return, provided American universities with their global credence. However, the future credibility of American universities will depend on America's continued prosperity, not only economically but also socially. We must close gaps, leave no potential students behind, and improve a situation where only a third of our adults have college degrees.
Secondly, American universities must hold on to their wealth of international talent. The higher-education world is not yet perfectly flat, but it is clearly moving in that direction and picking up speed. Countries such as China and India are committed to building world-class universities. Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Korea, Qatar, and many nations like them want to become world-class destinations for students from their regions.
Are there enough talented professors in the world to fill the need? Right now, America is a repository of global talent, but for how long? Education complexes funded with massive investments are emerging in various parts of the world. Other nations have started to reach out to their diaspora, offering competitive salaries and greater leadership opportunities to reclaim talented people of their heritage.
In this changing landscape, American universities must reinvent their paradigm. Maintaining exclusivity over students and professors is unlikely to continue in the highly transient and increasingly connected world. Mutually beneficial partnerships and collaborations must become the cornerstones of our future strategy.
We have to ask ourselves: Can America lead the way in developing a system where learning takes place globally and progress toward learning is transferred seamlessly from country to country? Can a student start his degree in India, spend a second year in Greece, a third year in Brazil, and after completing a fourth year receive the degree in the United States?
A similar question has to be asked about faculty. Can we share our talented teachers and researchers across the globe, not just via distance education but by sharing their actual presence for one semester each at two universities? Wouldn't it be better to still have that professor in our American system for four to six months out of every year rather than to lose her to an attractive competitor forever? And keep in mind that faculty traveling and living abroad will likely become better educators.
Yet another question: Is it feasible to anchor an important project in one lab but allow its applicability to be developed in three research parks in three countries simultaneously? Isn't it ultimately better for important technology to be transferred to the marketplace in the shortest amount of time rather than decelerate its development by a single institution monopolizing the process?
Yes, complicated legal, logistical, and economic issues will make every such scenario seem impossible—initially. But we must realize that the primary asset of a knowledge economy is knowledge and the principal talent and resources to produce it are moving swiftly into the global marketplace.
If American higher education wants to remain relevant and globally competitive, then it must broaden its perspective and transform itself into a truly global enterprise. The innovation and initiative that helped make the American system the envy of the world can also lead the way in developing an equally admirable new model for the future.
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