Higher education is undergoing dramatic change everywhere. It seems that the early 21st century is the “perfect storm” of external pressures and internal responses. The current period may provide a chance for significant reform and change, although the pressures could overwhelm already stretched academic institutions. The purpose here is to highlight the underlying causes creating this unprecedented situation as a way of analyzing contemporary higher education in context. While these realities exist almost everywhere, the responses of national academic systems, governments, and individual universities vary considerably. One of the benefits of a comparative approach is the ability to contrast differing ways of responding to crisis.
The underlying realities discussed here are both simple and complex: the reality of mass higher education worldwide; the transformation of higher education from a public good to a private good and the economic and social thinking and policies behind this perception; the advent of a service-oriented post industrial economy in a growing number of countries; and the impact of information technology on higher education and society. There are no doubt other factors impinging on higher education policy and practice, but these are central realities that have deep implications for how academic systems and universities operate.