Published on 2021/09/23

Higher Education Practices in a Democracy

Higher education has historically been founded upon unjust practices and inequal structures that prevent access. A total reform is necessary to re-design higher education to serve students democratically.

The central question from the perspective of a pragmatic educational philosophy is: How do higher education institutions (HEIs) express the democratic principles of freedom of choice and equality in practice? On a macro scale, the march of history—as Hans Rosling has shown in Factfulness—is very encouraging and includes data such as global literacy rates for those older than 15 rising from 10% in 1800 to 86% in 2016, the percentage of primary school-age girls who were educated in schools across the globe increasing from 65% in 1970 to 90% in 2015 and the share of humanity living in democracies growing from 1% in 1816 to 56% in 2015 (2018, pages 62-63).

It is in this spirit of optimism and factful reality that I wish to explore how the democratic principle expresses itself in HEIs, addressing both the legitimate calls for reform and the positive thread of educational innovation that have been implemented or are in their budding stages.

I want to begin with higher education system reform. In the last decade, several studies calling for significant reforms in higher education in the UK have been published. For instance, Tom Sperlinger, et al (2018) argue in Who are Universities For? that a complete overhaul of the system is needed to create greater access (which aligns with the democratic value of equality) and even recommend national taxation (a participatory education tax) to fund the widening of access (in addition to simply increasing participation) as well as a participatory budgeting model to go along with a flexible, modularized structure of programs that would replace degrees, which will be abolished as a credential (pages 27-30, page 10, page 23). These are seismic changes. Though not impossible to accomplish, they will necessarily require a significant disruption in higher education culture and a sea change in public policy in the UK.

But the UK is not isolated in this debate for increased access. We are witnessing similar discussions  on system reform to increase participation take place in the US, with the Biden administration’s proposed American Families Plan earmarking “$109 billion to make two years of community college free for all students” (Dickler, 2021).

While I am focusing on HEIs in Western democracies, the same questions apply to an economically advanced democracy like Japan. Motoko Rich (2019) notes that for “nearly two decades, enrollment of women at the University of Tokyo has hovered around 20 percent, an imparity that extends across many top colleges. Among seven publicly funded national institutions, women make up just over one quarter of undergraduates.” Clearly a national approach is needed in Japan to address this inequity in access.

Such a unified, sweeping transformation in national education is not always possible, however. In Canada, for instance, higher education is not under the jurisdiction of the federal government but falls instead under provincial mandate. Perhaps many of the recommendations made by Sperlinger, et al, are possible in the Canadian context (some, such as teaching assistantships, are already a reality in North America). But the route to implementation would be considerably different which is evidence of local forms of political, democratic realities exercising their influence on practical implementation questions. This is the reason why most Canadian studies focus on provincial strategies to address higher education needs, such as in Academic Reform by Ian D. Clark, et al (2011) or in George Fallis’ (2014) Rethinking Higher Education, both of which examine Ontario’s system. 

Aside from the idiosyncrasies that arise from differences in political structures even within democracies, the stratified, complex nature of HEIs, which have layers of interdependencies with external stakeholders, creates major challenges for wholesale reform. For instance, when it comes to types of credentials most employers specify certain qualifications (which are invariably listed as certificates, diplomas, degrees, professional designations, etc.) when advertising positions , which reflects the normative denominations in educational currency. I should note that in some industries, like IT, there is a movement away from standardized qualifications. This promising trend may become more prominent over time but is still in its nascent stages.

Professional associations, for their part, frequently impose rigid requirements for entry into their fields or for accreditation of their programs. Any significant reform, particularly one that removes degrees and other standardized credentials, would involve intensively re-educating the wider community (including parents, current and potential learners, high school counselors, private companies, public institutions—indeed anyone not well versed in matters of educational vernacular and curricular design), as well as arriving at a negotiated agreement with professional associations. This is in addition to substantial and substantive changes in public policy and funding arrangements with provincial, state and national governments. Radical reform is not impossible, as I have mentioned before, but the bar that needs to be reached to accomplish a system-wide transformation is extremely high. 

Even as there is debate and drive to address systemic challenges to participation and choice, meaningful, innovative educational solutions have not been lacking. Over the past several decades, we have witnessed the growth of open and online enrolment models that address the needs of learners who either do not have the requisite high school credential or require (or simply prefer) learning delivered in a different format. These open enrolment models exist either as independent institutions, such as Athabasca University in Canada or the Open University in the UK, as a division within an HEI or even as a consortium, as with Open Universities Australia. 

A further innovation, stemming from George Siemens and Stephen Downes’ work in connectivism, led to the first MOOC (Massive Online Open Course), which was seen as an “opportunity for individuals to create meaning, share knowledge and utilize an extensive web of networks to discern and utilize information as necessary” (Moe, 2015, page 6). A complete history of MOOCs and their intricacies is beyond the scope of this article, so I will only mention that most MOOCs today have diverged from the original connectivism concept (usually identified as cMOOCs).  

Some, like Andrew Roth (2014), have noted the disappointing nature of early versions of MOOCs, and others like David Wiley (2012) dislike the term and consider it (with some justification) a misnomer. But the concept and attempt nevertheless represents a shard of innovation, an experiment in promoting the democratic goals of access and choice. What most early MOOCs did not offer was genuine innovation in curricular design, even as they attempted to expand access—a MOOC is essentially only a standard online course with open access attached to it. 

Of course, educational innovations using technology (whether it is artificial intelligence, AR/VR, or some other form) to further access and create choice appear promising, but the full potential of educational technology still remains to be realized, and investments in R&D may pay generous dividends in the near future.

What I have shown is that while a seismic revolution in higher education as a system needs certain herculean efforts, serious curricular innovation might be an answer to the conundrum of increasing participation and choice in higher education. The more recent innovation of microcredentials offers significant potential, and I hope soon to address how it provides higher education with a solution to increased access and choice. 


Clark, I. D., Trick, D., & Van Loon, R. (2011). Academic reform: Policy options for improving the quality and cost-effectiveness of undergraduate education in Ontario. Queen’s School of Policy Studies; Illustrated edition.

Dickler, J. (2021, April 28). Biden’s American Families Plan could make free college a reality. CNBC.

Fallis, G. (2014). Rethinking higher education: Participation, research, and differentiation. Queen’s School of Policy Studies; Illustrated edition.

Moe, R. (2015). The brief & expansive history (and future) of the MOOC: Why two divergent models share the same name. Current Issues in Emerging eLearning: Vol. 2 (1).

Rich, M. (2019, December 8). At Japan’s Most Elite University, Just 1 in 5 Students Is a Woman. The New York Times.

Rosling, H., Rosling, O., & Rönnlund, A. R. (2018). Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world—and why things are better than you think. Flatiron Books.

Roth, A. (2014, September 18). Musings on the future of higher ed: The worst of times. The Evolllution.

Sperlinger, T., McLellan, J., & Pettigrew, R. (2018). Who are universities for?: Remaking higher education. Bristol University Press.

Wiley, D. (2012). The MOOC misnomer.  Improving Learning.

Disclaimer: Embedded links in articles don’t represent author endorsement, but aim to provide readers with additional context and service. 

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