The Global University

The shape and structure of higher education must change dramatically to meet the needs of a transformed world.

Let’s establish some basic principles. First, business is going global. Information, people, and capital flow quickly and copiously without respect to borders. Skilled workers and industrial infrastructure can be found in a growing number of countries. Corporate nationality is becoming less relevant as all the components of a business become portable.

Second, global engineering work can be carried out anytime, anywhere. Centralized, monolithic engineering operations will give way to integrated project teams (IPTs) that will incorporate workers from across the globe. Work will be handed off “down-sun” in sequence to team members around the world, so that work on individual tasks progresses continuously around the clock.

Third, the profile of the global engineering workforce will be driven by the changes in engineering practice just described. As global skill levels rise, Americans will comprise a smaller percentage of the global engineering work force. Employers increasingly will hire not degrees per se but knowledge, capabilities, and skills; and they will have reliable ways to test for standards of knowledge and skill.

As leaders in industry and academe, we have seen numerous reports about improving engineering education. By and large, they call for little more than minor adjustments or additions to current programs. Recognizing that tinkering at the margins would not be enough to meet the challenge of the changing industrial structure, we jointly convened a “summit” of leading industrialists and educators, who spent two full days in intensive exploration of the forces affecting the engineering profession at the beginning of the 21st century and what this means for the profession. The aim was to formulate a new model of engineering education that will better meet the current and future needs of multinational companies and the global engineer.

The result of this brainstorming session was a new “Model of the Global University.” Here again, some basic principles must be set forth. First, in the global environment we just described, academe and industry will converge. Just as industry follows the market, universities must follow industry, locating campuses close to the customer, around the world. Just as industry molds its organization and its product offerings to the needs of the customer, so the academic organization will reconfigure itself to conform to the educational needs of students, with a particular focus on practicing engineers and scientists

To say that industry and academe will converge is not to imply that they will merge. The mission of the university will continue to revolve around basic research; broad education; the maintenance and dissemination of knowledge in an organized fashion; and a focus on educational processes and technologies.

Second, education will become continuous. For the global engineer, education is a continuum, not just a period of formal learning. As engineers mature personally and professionally, most find that they first require broader knowledge of other scientific and technical disciplines, then management skills, and ultimately the kind of wide-ranging humanistic knowledge that leads to greater personal development.

Third, educational standards will become more important. With engineers working on decentralized teams, with hiring decisions being made remotely, with education being delivered at remote campuses, the ability to reliably convey and recognize specific capabilities will become crucial. Recognized standards of educational delivery and achievement will be the academic equivalent of product quality assurance, going far beyond today’s broad accreditation criteria.

The model of the global university is a logical response to these changes. In this vision, the university reshapes itself structurally to resemble its primary client, industry. The central core campus is still responsible for basic education of entry-level students, for fundamental research, for educational-process innovation, and for management of the system-wide research and education enterprise. But much of the actual delivery of the educational product occurs at branch campuses and remote sites around the world that are located in close proximity to large industrial sites and areas of major industrial activity.

Each branch campus is a regional institution serving either a single large corporate-customer installation or a cluster of companies. It provides educational programming to nontechnical personnel such as managers as well as to scientists and engineers. Classroom formats can include interactive faculty-led, faculty-facilitated multimedia, and distance learning with and without an on-site instructor. Classes are open to local undergraduates and “transfer” students from the central campus as well as to company personnel. In addition to training students, the branch campus provides “technology park” facilities and services tailored to the needs of local industry customers.

This working industrial interface also allows the branch campus to provide educational “raw material” that is generalized and codified into educational programming at the central campus, industrial experience and project teaming opportunities for students and faculty from the central campus, and a conduit for industrial practitioners to participate in education as instructors, curriculum developers, and mentors.

Each remote site is a small-scale learning center focused on the educational needs of a single corporate customer. It provides multimedia access to educational programming as well as some advanced instruction by faculty as appropriate. It may be collocated with the customer.

Branch campuses and remote sites alike can be located anywhere in the world. Both are equipped for distance learning and can be networked into central campus multimedia educational programming. Faculty and students as well as educational material such as courseware flow into and out of the central campus, and to a lesser extent between branch campuses and remote sites.

The university will serve as a clearinghouse for knowledge and will certify educators who can organize and impart that knowledge in the most effective way possible. Thus, as the university makes the transition into the global model, the effect will be to provide a new dimension of educational support for the global corporation. That new resource will strengthen the global corporation and actually help to accelerate the changes occurring in industry and in engineering practice.

The model of the global university described here will bring about a number of changes in the overall configuration of the university system. For example, a tendency toward specialization may occur as institutions focus, for marketing and economic reasons, on their core competencies. “Franchising” of educational programs by an institution, either to commercial service providers or to other universities, is one possible response to this specialization.

Collaboration on the granting of academic degrees by universities will increase at the same time that emphasis on degrees by industrial employers will diminish. With greater standardization of the educational product, educational content will be more uniform and grading more objective. Education can be tailored to the individual, and the details of an individual’s educational itinerary, combined with project experience, will present an accurate professional profile of the person.

The involvement of more industrial practitioners directly in the delivery of engineering education, although highly beneficial for education, will also alter the employment patterns and profiles of faculty. Tenure policies will be affected, and alternative academic employment patterns will emerge.

As the demand by industry for this new dimension of educational support grows, those universities that adapt to meet the demand will thrive; those that do not will become less and less relevant. Over time, then, it is likely that the number of academic engineering programs in the United States will decline.

Other potential implications may be envisioned, and undoubtedly many surprises await. But we believe that the model will work–and work well. More than that, we believe it must be pursued. Global engineering is already a reality. Engineering education and the education system must adapt to that reality.

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Cite this Article

Condit, Philip, and R. Byron Pipes. “The Global University.” Issues in Science and Technology 14, no. 1 (Fall 1997).

Vol. XIV, No. 1, Fall 1997