An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Current Issue |
Spring 2024

While the United States remains a leader in higher education, the largest systems of higher education today are in India and China, and new colleges and universities spread across the world have become the leading sites of ambitious experimentation. 

What are the broader trends and innovations in higher education globally? How do national policies enhance or deter international cooperation among universities? What new models have emerged? And what can traditional institutions learn from their upstart peers?

Research & Teaching: Lasting Union or House Divided?

As a design innovation, the modern university is an institution that unites the advancement of knowledge through research with its dissemination through teaching. Its inception in Germany in the first decade of the nineteenth century inspired an American adaptation that merged the German version with the English undergraduate college to produce a new bundle that would be emulated the world over. The historical view reveals cycles of sustaining innovation in which academic entrepreneurs supplemented the research-teaching synthesis with institutions devoted to one task or the other. Despite these disruptive efforts and continuing evidence of inefficiency, however, the original institutional hybrid remains the dominant model. This essay argues that the university’s persistence is best understood as fulfilling a deeper need in American political culture. 

The International University in an Age of Deglobalization

Over the past four decades, American universities and colleges have internationalized so significantly that many are now global knowledge institutions. After a brief survey and categorization of different approaches to internationalization (from enhanced study abroad partnerships to full degree-granting campuses of U.S.-based institutions abroad), the essay presents a case study of NYU Abu Dhabi, which the author helped create as its first provost and later led as its vice chancellor. The analysis focuses on the rationale, challenges, and rewards for U.S. universities to engage seriously abroad, and argues that in the face of deglobalizing headwinds, universities need to strengthen, not attenuate, their efforts to promote research across borders and offer vigorous intercultural education.

The Rise and Restructuring of Yale-NUS College: An International Liberal Arts Partnership in Singapore

Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS) agreed in 2011 to open Yale-NUS College, an autonomous liberal arts college within NUS. As the College’s first president, I recount in this essay some of the successes and challenges of creating the College, which opened in 2013, and the decision of NUS in 2021 to end the partnership as of 2025. I analyze the College’s educational offerings, the political controversies surrounding its establishment and eventual closure, the finances of a small-scale, elite college within a large public university, and the broad social changes that contributed to the College’s fate.

Northwestern University in Qatar: A Distinctive Global University

Founded in 2008 through a partnership between Northwestern University and Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development (QF), Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) educates creative, ethical, and impactful communicators, and contributes both to Northwestern’s excellence and the rise of Qatar as a knowledge-based society. NU-Q’s vision is multidisciplinary, multimodal, multilingual, and focused on the Global South as an intellectual and creative space for research and teaching. NU-Q positions itself as an “embedded institution” in which U.S. higher education overlaps with regional and “Southern” circuits of academic exchange that catalyze critical debates on enduring and emerging issues, and enables a relationship between the university and the world that is globally competitive and locally resonant. NU-Q is a distinctive university dedicated to that vision.

Establishing a Research-Focused Liberal Arts College in China: Duke Kunshan University

Duke Kunshan University (DKU), a new liberal arts and science university in China, with Duke University and Wuhan University as academic partners, is an experiment in twenty-first-century characteristics and global challenges. DKU’s undergraduate degree program features an innovative, integrated, and interdisciplinary curriculum focused on cross-disciplinary challenges and research experiences. Its interdisciplinary research centers and graduate programs help attract international faculty and students, while its residential setting promotes diverse, rich, and meaningful interactions beyond the classroom. The shared vision for DKU among students, parents, faculty, staff, partner universities, and other stakeholders helps ensure the university’s success. And the phenomenal achievements of the first cohort of graduates from the inaugural class of 2022 is evidence that the DKU experiment is working, despite many challenges.

Authors Haiyan Gao and Yijun Gu

Chinese Universities on the Global Stage: Perspectives from the Recent Past

Institutional reforms in higher education in China have produced impressive results both in the quality of scholarly work and the quantity of degree-holders. The higher-education system effectively complemented China’s stellar economic transformation in the post-Mao decades. But it has yet to earn unalloyed admiration in the world of universities. This essay draws on my research as a historian of modern China and my time as faculty adviser on China engagement at the University of California, Berkeley. I argue that the rise in eminence of Chinese universities is about the system becoming more Western-oriented, more elitist in ethos, less overtly top-down in directives, and more techno-bureaucratic in means. The university system is also reaching an inflection point thanks to tension between ideologized cultural nationalism and headwinds on the course of further techno-professional internationalization. 

Author Wen-hsin Yeh

The Liberal Arts in a Chinese Tech University: ShanghaiTech

A newly founded, small-scale research university geared toward international standards and competitiveness, ShanghaiTech University has three STEM divisions (information science and technology, physical science and technology, and life science and technology) and three HASS divisions (creativity and arts, entrepreneurship and management, and the humanities). The university’s undergraduate education receives its inspiration from the whole-person approach, and gives particular weight to a “broadly based and in-depth” pedagogical framework, in which the liberal arts make up an indispensable component. Through interdisciplinary curricular planning, small class sizes, emphasis on interaction and openness in learning, and international exchange programs, I explore effective measures to grow general education at ShanghaiTech as well as address challenges that are unique to a Chinese tech university.

Valuing & Defending the Arts in Hong Kong

Focusing on a period of just over two decades (1997–2023), this essay charts how the most salient approaches to valuing and defending the arts in Hong Kong reflect the changing political circumstances of the city. I select two approaches for close analysis. Emphasizing the private and public value of the arts, the first approach reflects efforts to reinvent Hong Kong in the wake of the handover to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. Influenced by significant social unrest in 2014 and 2019, and by the introduction of the National Security Law in 2020, the second approach seeks protection for the arts through collaboration with the sciences. The exceptional conditions that Hong Kong offers for meaningful arts-related work are identified to facilitate international comparisons.

Author Mette Hjort

A Long & Wrong Road to Globalization: Why Have Japanese Universities Failed in “Catching Up” in the Twenty-First Century?

This essay examines how universities in non-Western, non-English-speaking countries respond to global competition in higher education, where English has become dominant due to “linguistic imperialism.” I pose critical questions about how these institutions can not only endure but thrive amid global competition, and whether intensified global competition has improved the quality of education. Focusing on Japan, I explore both successful and challenging aspects of globalization in its institutions of higher education. While Japan achieved success in adapting during the late nineteenth century, the emphasis on learning foreign languages, including English, diminished after World War II. The Japanese case illustrates the complex trade-offs between ensuring educational equity and global competitiveness, and highlights the evolving dynamics and challenges faced by universities as well as policymakers in non-English-speaking countries in the global higher-education landscape.

India’s Realignment of Higher Education

Higher education in India has been stifled by overregulation. The opening of private universities has been severely restricted, and all but a few exempt institutions have had to comply with rigid curricular and organizational dictates. The system has been characterized by rote learning, high-stakes examination, premature specialization, and limited flexibility. In the most sweeping transformation to the system in the nation’s modern history, India’s new National Education Policy 2020 (NEP2020) seeks to change all that. With half of the world’s university-age population residing in India, bursting with aspiration but frustrated by limited access to quality institutions, new universities are emerging. One is Sai University, the first in the nation to integrate heretofore siloed programs in arts and sciences, technology, and law into an integrated ecosystem at the undergraduate level.

One Aspirational Future for India’s Higher Education Sector

Several recent encouraging experiments in Indian higher education suggest a plausible aspirational path toward a more salubrious future than that suggested by an otherwise struggling system. Four case studies of privately conceived and funded universities each exhibit a novel model of collective philanthropy. Typically, each case features multiple entrepreneurs with self-created “new” wealth, often with exposure to Western liberal arts educations, sharing in the university’s governance. The university is not hostage to the vagaries of a single family’s preferences. Encouragingly, each experiment here has built on its predecessors, and an entrepreneurial ecosystem has emerged that has privileged pedagogical excellence. However, formal research still lags. It remains to be seen whether the latter lacunae can be remedied without concerted public funding that is the norm in Western educational landscapes.

Author Tarun Khanna

Up Close: Asian University for Women

At a time when equalizing measures like affirmative action are being challenged, a women’s university is uplifting the most neglected and defenseless populations in Bangladesh. Yet the Asian University for Women (AUW) faces additional challenges in providing excellent higher education. This essay discusses how AUW also confronts mounting pernicious state control of education by transforming state-university relationships, and how, despite resurfacing nationalism and parochialism, it advocates for regional collaboration in its student body. In a conflict-ridden world, it marshals political, financial, and diplomatic prowess to provide a liberating pathway to those marooned in conflict. While fostering equality through its undergraduate and graduate programs, AUW has raised an age-old question concerning a university’s function in an unjust, violence-prone, and divided world. Its answer: the best institutions embrace disadvantaged members of society through education aimed at emancipating those under the yoke of oppression.

Author Kamal Ahmad

The Socialist Model of Higher Education: The Dream Faces Reality

This essay explores the socialist model of higher education that originates from early socialist and Marxist thinkers. We contrast this model with Western and Chinese models by focusing on the socialist model’s ideals of education as a public good, as free and equal access to instruction, and as a class-based approach to education. Our study of this model employs historical reconstruction and path-dependence analysis to understand the implementation and transformation of these ideals.  We discuss early Soviet experiments, the global influence of the model, and its evolution following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The model’s emphasis on state control, specialized training, and production of a skilled workforce is also highlighted. The essay concludes by acknowledging the model’s flaws, reflecting on the implications for contemporary higher education, and recognizing its contributions to ideas of social mobility, fair access, and the role of universities in societal development.

The Geopolitics of Academic Freedom: Universities, Democracy & the Authoritarian Challenge

This essay examines why academic freedom has become a defining issue in the geostrategic competition between liberal democracies and their authoritarian challengers. The growing strategic rivalry between the United States and China is threatening to disrupt, even destroy, academic interchange between liberal and authoritarian societies. At the same time, populist right-wing leaders in Western democracies are attacking university autonomy, as part of a strategy of authoritarian consolidation. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán has pursued an authoritarian takeover of his country’s higher-education system while seeking new partnerships with Chinese institutions. Through this essay, I seek to explain why academic freedom faces unprecedented challenges, both within liberal democracies and from authoritarian competitors.

The Pandora’s Box of Fudan Hungary

A Chinese university opening a campus in the so-called “West” for the first time would have been a major advancement in the globalizing strategy of Chinese higher education. Yet the case of Fudan University opening its first European campus in Hungary seems to have contained several pitfalls from the start. This essay highlights some of them, such as the effects of a Cold War context on national higher-education strategies and the uncertain future of internationalization in higher education. The way the discourse around the university developed proved to be a Pandora’s box unleashing woes: it showed that efforts to globalize higher education have become subordinate to geopolitical considerations and are regarded as questions of national loyalty, particularly in states involved in a growing resurgence of Cold War–type coalitions. 

Teaching for Synthesis at the London Interdisciplinary School

The London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) is a British higher-education institution that opened in 2021, with a base in Whitechapel, London. It seeks to advance higher education through innovation in curriculum, with the creation of two new degrees: the Bachelor’s in Arts and Science (BASc) and Master’s in Arts and Science (MASc). While a traditional liberal arts degree might expose students to a wide range of fields of knowledge, a particularly unique part of degrees at LIS is an explicit focus on knowledge synthesis across different disciplines and methods, allowing us to understand and tackle complex problems. In this essay, we describe the founding of LIS and then briefly detail three distinct aspects of teaching for synthesis. In contrast to a “bottom up” approach—which relies on interdisciplinarity to result incidentally from disciplinary combinations—this technique is part of a series of coherent actions that synthesize knowledge broadly across different disciplines and methods. 

The Rise of University Colleges in Europe: A New Future for Liberal Arts & Sciences in the Twenty-First Century?

Starting in the late 1990s, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of liberal arts and science colleges in the Netherlands. Primarily international and often residential colleges, they became the selective or honors branches of virtually all Dutch research universities. Why did they emerge then and there? How can this innovation be characterized and understood in the context of the Dutch higher-education landscape of the time? And why did the model become more popular in the Netherlands than throughout the rest of Europe? The model benefits from being embedded in strong research universities, and having ample financial support and autonomy. Yet their future success will depend on their ability to uphold their liberal values and mission, throughout illiberal storms hitting the continent and against internal threats to academic freedom.

Global Education without Walls: A Multidisciplinary Investigation of University Learning in Online Environments across Disciplines

Increasingly, students use the internet for self-directed learning in higher education, requiring them to develop skills to determine which information is reliable and accurate. Although the need to understand, evaluate, and promote such skills is crucial, little is known about the students’ search for and use of online sources (and the key influences of those sources) in higher education. Current research indicates both that students need specific skills to successfully engage and learn with online materials, and that university practitioners need to rethink their curricula and instructional approaches for online teaching in the age of ChatGPT and other AI-supported tools. Interdisciplinary theoretical and empirical methods can help us gain a deeper understanding of how students develop the various skills required for successful online learning, and how we can support them across domains.

Educating Students for Climate Action: Distraction or Higher Education Capital?

This essay examines how universities are responding to demands to educate students for climate action. I argue for a whole-of-university approach, in which sustainability becomes part of the mission of the university, and translates into reimagined forms of education, research, outreach, and management of the university operations. This approach runs counter to the most common response of universities, incremental to new demands, and is likely to take place only in institutions with greater capacity for innovation. Strategy and knowledge are key resources to support such innovation, drawing on the comparative analysis of the global experience of higher education, as there are already high rates of institutional innovation globally in educating for climate action. 

Online Learning & the Transformation of Global Higher Education

This essay examines the global impact of online education in the decade following the widely publicized introduction of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in 2012—exploring the demographics and preferences of learners, the effectiveness of online learning, the surprising and substantial impact on the labor market, and the implications of scalability for reducing the cost of education. The essay concludes that online education has broadened the range of activities undertaken by leading universities and will continue to dramatically expand the population of learners with access to low-cost, high-quality education.

Author Richard Levin

Minerva: The Intentional University

Minerva University is a pioneering educational institution established in 2012 with the goal of redefining liberal arts education for the twenty-first century. Addressing widespread concerns about the effectiveness of traditional higher education, Minerva adopts first principles thinking in its pedagogy, emphasizing practical knowledge, active learning, and global exposure. The curriculum is constructed around two distinct types of learning objectives, Habits of Mind and Foundational Concepts, which ensures that students develop critical leadership and problem-solving skills. Leveraging advanced technology and a science-based understanding of learning, the university supports a diverse and international student body through a global rotation model. Students live and work in up to seven different cities around the world. Minerva’s outcomes, including high graduation rates and alumni success, attest to its effectiveness and suggest that its innovative approaches can serve as a model for educational reform.

The Role & Rule of Rankings

This essay explores the impact of global university rankings on higher education, with a focus on their historical evolution, limitations, and flaws. I examine the detrimental consequences associated with manipulating the ranking systems, and their resultant financial repercussions, which lead to diminished trust in higher-education institutions. I call for a comprehensive evaluation, urging stakeholders—especially governments—to recognize the subjectivity and limitations inherent in rankings that inform policymaking decisions related to higher education. I propose strategies for improvement, such as broadening the criteria used for rankings, and specialized rankings that highlight the unique strengths of various types of institutions, like public engagement, student satisfaction, diversity, and sustainability. Collaboration could enhance ranking accuracy, while also acknowledging the significance of ranking systems in shaping higher-education decisions and policies.

Author Gökhan Depo