The 21st century university has nothing to do with the 19th century university. This was a mere instance where the children of the most exclusive elite received ancient knowledge for the acquisition of liberal arts, manage their farms and properties or to cultivate fine arts. Nowadays, the University is open to a vast majority of social groups, it creates and disseminates knowledge, it is considered to be the engine of economic development and the guarantee of professional qualification. This is way Higher Education in general and University in particular own a great social prestige.
All this change took place during the 20th century. University began to get massified in the United States of America due to both the need for highly qualified workers linked to economic development and the social policy that favored Second World War veterans to win access to higher education. Middle classes were progressively involved at University. From that moment, the massified University, i.e., equity in access, spread everywhere.
The beginning of this process already established two major differences. In the United States there is a strong private participation in the financing of University access, while in Europe access is guaranteed through public spending. However, this successful story also has its dark side:
- The dilemma between being a research-oriented university or a teaching university. Nominally, all universities claim for the quality of its teaching and the high level of the research they do. Inasmuch, University rankings speak for themselves. It is easy to obtain additional funding for a research oriented University
- The dilemma between excellence and equity. Given the economic constraints imposed by legal, political and institutional, resources are finite. Achieving excellence requires more resources to take off over the average. Therefore, the higher education system faces the never resolved dilemma between to allocate scarce resources for maximum accessibility or to allocate resources to improve research, teaching, knowledge transfer to the market and internationalization
Anyway, the global demand for higher education continues to rise sharply, making real the knowledge society. In parallel, a degree in higher education means higher paid jobs, while markets are demanding higher professional qualifications for the same jobs. Some scientists suggest another phenomenon referred to the effects of fast technological change: the race between education and technology. Only those able for long life learning exceed the risk of being outdated, while technological change press wages down. Many social sectors are expelled from this race, creating a deeper dual society.
In short, it is assumed that individuals benefit from investing in higher education because it increases worker productivity and therefore public and private investments are welcome. However, it exists a greater need for social control over how higher education institutions educate their graduates. We call this accountability. In any case, it is undisputed the need that any democratic society guarantees access to higher education to anyone who has enough talent.
The real dilemma between the massified university model and the university of excellence is here: not every university is offering the same quality and a consensus exists on the fact that many investment made in higher education have no clear return in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. For this reason, the struggle to ensure maximum access to quality education ends up in competition between universities to strive towards excellence.