Higher education is increasingly subject to competing demands, often appearing to come from very different, seemingly incompatible world views. The idea of the “knowledge economy” has emerged as a dominant way of framing the work of universities, represented in global league tables that privilege a particular view of excellence and its purpose. In many parts of the world, governments are reorganising their higher education systems to support the growth of “elite” institutions, whilst a growing number of private providers widen further the type of teaching provision available. There is thus a clear trend towards increasing stratification in many university systems whilst privileging economic ends over social ones.
Those of us engaged in higher education research are challenged by such developments, and may wish to ask difficult questions in observing the changing shape of higher education: Are these changes inevitable? Are they happening everywhere and in the same way? Is higher education becoming increasingly a means of social reproduction? We ask how we can avoid the disbenefits of current trends. What role can other beliefs and values play in challenging what are fast becoming unquestioned norms? Is it acceptable to let markets decide who gets access to what educational opportunity? Is there space for diversity and inclusion in an increasingly stratified system? To what extent can institutions develop and maintain a distinctive mission? How can higher education research contribute to understanding and managing stratification?
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