“Who are today’s university students?” The answer to that question is not so neatly encapsulated in a simple response.

Ken Steele notes in the lead article of this issue that students are a diverse group looking for variety of university experiences. They differ regionally, demographically, and by expectation and motivation. They are ethnically diverse. They are both younger—and older—than in the past. Indeed, mature students—those typically older than 25—make up an increasing number of undergraduate students.

Much attention, however, still focuses on the young undergraduates, who comprise the bulk of students at university. Both anecdotally and through numerous surveys, we know there are common threads unifying this diverse group. As Steele observes, they are more likely to view universities as career preparation than as a path to “personal or intellectual growth”. Only a minority are motivated to pursue their studies in order to “give back to society.” They tend to view higher education as a commodity to be purchased and, as consumers, look for the best scholarships and the best return on their educational investment. Undergrads are also more likely to have paid work while studying “full-time,” a situation applicable to more than half of women students and approximately 40 per cent of men.

Steele observes that universities have contributed to students’ consumerist perspectives through ever-increasing tuition fees, an emphasis on the financial value of a university education, and aggressive marketing campaigns that highlight facilities and services.

These trends are accompanied by student anxiety about the growing cost of university education, an uncertain labour market, and financial insecurity.

Much is made of the cultural shift today’s students represent compared to the generation of middle-aged faculty who teach them. The impact of technology is frequently underscored. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Will the book survive generation text?” Carlin Romano worries that technology and a dramatically changing culture of communication is undermining the willingness and capacity of students to engage intellectually in any sustained manner.

Romano writes that “… [y]oung people hear, through the apotheosis of tweets, blog posts, Facebook updates, and sound bites as the core of communication, that short is always smarter and better than long, even though most everyone knows it’s usually dumber and worse.” He then muses, half-seriously, that the recent tongue-in-cheek Penguin publication Twitterature by two University of Chicago undergraduate students could be the new Coles notes of world classics for the current generation of students. In that 140-character universe, Hamlet becomes: “@OedipusGothplex—Gonna try to talk some sense into Mom because boyfriend totally killed Dad. I sense this is the moment of truth, the moment of candour and—”Is this overwrought? Are such concerns simply an academic version of the age-old lament “What’s the matter with kids today?” Certainly, as other have suggested, the students who today tweet, text, and adjust their Facebook settings during lectures are the modern-day equivalent of those who read comics and passed notes to each other 30 years ago. And now, as then, are also students with a desire and dedication to learn.

But, there are some more fundamental concerns at issue here. As universities increasingly focus on responding to the market of prospective students—a market that is highly sensitive to economic change and perceived opportunity—what is the future of programs which have been a critical part of a university education but no longer are viewed as having an economic return—by the student market or the university? Does a finely-tuned attention to market demand mean, for example, the demise of the liberal arts? How “adaptable” can universities become without sacrificing the ability to provide the knowledge and critical thought that ideally underpins a university education? And what role can faculty play in all of this?

The articles in this issue provide some very thoughtful perspectives on these and other concerns.

Mark Rosenfeld is editor-in-chief of Academic Matters and associate executive director of OCUFA