Higher Education and Historical Longevity

Universidad de Salamanca (Est. 1218) - The oldest existing Spanish university.

I often smile when I hear negative commentary about the current state of higher education.  Certainly improvements are always welcome; indeed necessary.  However when examining the overall state of affairs of colleges and universities, one cannot ignore its historical longevity.

As an example, since the first universities opened in Western Europe over 800 years ago, (Bologna, Salamanka and Oxford), other than the Roman Catholic Church, there has been no institution that has persisted as long as colleges and universities.  When we examine North American institutions, they continue to be ranked as some of the best in the world and many remain the preferred destination for thousands of international students.

Preparing for the Storm

Notwithstanding these historical truths, it is obvious that future years will see new challenges emerge. It is the educational leader’s responsibility to be aware of these potential challenges and to prepare their institution for this oncoming storm.  Higher education is not immune to failure.  One needs only to look for the Russian educational and research universities that once made their place among the world’s elite. Today it is difficult to find a Russian university even mentioned in the top five hundred of either the London or the Shanghai rankings. This example serves as a good reminder to all post secondary leaders that change, even in higher education, can come quickly and positions of historical market strength can swiftly erode.

The Next Decade

Going into the next decade, it is critical that higher education leaders be aware of the complexity of change and competition that is facing the Academy.  Higher education is entering an unprecedented period of transition, competition and technological revolution. Our colleges must continue to serve as our social and economic incubators in order for industry and our communities to succeed.  We can be proud of our historical longevity, however the future will be largely determined by our academic leadership and its ability to address the daunting challenges that lie ahead.



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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