Higher Education: Global Change and Local Pressure

There is scarcely a day goes by now without some new announcement of major changes in the structure and function of higher education around the world, all with local nuances and impacts but with global resonance.  Here are a few examples: President Obama’s announcement of a new approach in the face of escalating costs (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/01/30/obama-higher-education-plan-signals-policy-shift ); the UK Government’s raising of tuition fees; Scotland’s review into university governance; India’s on-going attempts to open up the country to foreign investment in higher education; several World Bank and Asian Development Bank initiatives that place higher education at the heart of social and economic development (for an overview see this report https://globalhighered.wordpress.com/2011/11/26/tertiary-education-a-global-report/ ) ; the debate over the role of the university in the so-called Arab Spring; Australia’s deregulation of student intake numbers.

Higher education is in a state of ferment, apparently.  In some respects that is right, as demonstrated by the Australian case.  There is an argument that sees the country and its higher education system under almost constant change since the Dawkins “reforms” of the late 1980s.  “Reforms” is expressed that way here because “reform” implies improvement, and there is an open debate still as to whether or not Dawkins did that.  The net result of the ferment everywhere has been a plethora of inquiries, reviews, investigations, and task forces that have contrived to alienate much of the academic workforce, as most recently demonstrated by the eminent historian Keith Thomas who sees all this as a sell out of something that was once great and good (http://joiningthedigitaldots.blogspot.com/2010/05/keith-thomas-asks-what-are-universities.html )

Therein lies an essential conundrum about the purpose of the university versus the “managerialism” that has allegedly taken over higher education everywhere.  A constant complaint from the academic workforce is that the “suits” have asked for another set of data, another report, another citation,  when all academic staff members want to do is “get on with their jobs” (although of course now their “jobs” are also a contestable quantity in that they are changing rapidly).

A few years ago a senior, experienced and successful university boss declared to me: “Running universities is easy.  All you have to get right is the people and the money!”

At first sight that seems nonsensical, of course, an absurd reduction of what has become a hugely complex managerial issue.  A second look, though, suggests it is not quite so silly, because those two commodities (people and money) are at the heart of every higher education development issue.

The Scottish inquiry into governance provides an excellent example. (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0038/00386780.pdf )  Among many recommendations sits one that would restrict the pay increases of Principals (Vice-Chancellors) to the same percentage increases awarded staff in general.  Then, all bonus and incentive payments to Principals would cease.  This last provision emanates immediately from what can now be termed the “Goodwin Effect” (after the now-former Sir Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland fame whose massive bonus payout following a disastrous tenure sparked widespread condemnation).  These recommendations certainly play to the gallery, but will they get the job done?  It is now undeniable that being a Vice-Chancellor is now much tougher than it was before, and that managerial decisions can make or break an institution.  This proposed restriction, then, is a direct reflection of the abiding notion of the “collegial” institution, where a Principal might be first among equals, entering into direct conflict with a system that is no longer funded and operated in a collegial way.  In effect, clever managers (as opposed to administrators) are now an essential part of an institution’s survival, and the pay scales need to reflect that.

By the same token the continuing devaluing of academic work is taking its toll.  It takes a very dedicated person now to undertake a PhD with a view to having a successful and satisfying career in higher education.  The conditions under which that might be achieved are just now so much more challenging, with the intrinsic awards (such as time to do research or, now, even the right and opportunity to do research) having been under huge pressure for a long time.  The debate in several countries about “teaching only” versus “teaching-research” positions mirrors the pressure on research performance in places like the UK and Australia.  The concepts of accountability and productivity have now gained so much sway that they have clearly changed the occupational landscape.  The prerequisite once was really curiosity – why does that happen?  Now it is publish about why that happens in order to qualify for the research assessment.  That is, there is now an instrumental as opposed to accidental air about research.

A corollary here is another “people” issue, students and their goals and destinies.  The recent ADB report, Putting Higher Education to Work: Skills and Research for Growth in East Asia (http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EASTASIAPACIFICEXT/Resources/226300-1279680449418/7267211-1318449387306/EAP_higher_education_fullreport.pdf )      captures the essence here, in that it posits the need to tie growing university numbers more directly to labour market demands and associated skills shortages.  This is certainly a “development world” preoccupation that appears in many places including Jordan and Syria (until the recent troubles), as well as Cambodia where I am now working, where universities are now envisaged as the core engines for growth.

That is all very well, but has led directly to discussions in many parts of the world about what an “educated” workforce really means.  Some crass analysts would argue that a massification of higher education is really about lowering unemployment numbers and, certainly, in more advanced parts of the world there is almost an inverse correlation between labor market shortage and student course preference with medicine, engineering and law always excepted.  In short, the labor market issue has blurred the lines between higher education and TVET, adding further complexity to an already confused condition.

And that returns us inevitably to the money.  David Cameron’s UK government’s latest little frisson involves the Tory arm vetoing the Lib-Dems’ nomination to an important sector post on the grounds that the nominee has openly opposed the tuition fee hikes that have over the past year produced large and energetic student demonstrations.  Some students are voting with their feet, going to countries like Holland where they can learn in English but at much lower cost than at home, ironically.

All this poses a question about the purpose of public funding of higher education, because in recent times the “user pays” principle has pervaded much thinking – if students get a future benefit then they should pay for the training, reducing public sector expenditure.  In many ways this is a reaction to burgeoning outlays associated with growth in institutional numbers.  That is why now around the developed world, at least, there are calls to reduce the numbers of providers and cut student numbers.  For many this “return to the elite past” is anathema, but it is a prime policy issue as economic downturn, if not recession, stalks many countries where higher education outlays have become unwieldy.

As the Australian case again suggests, though, through the Lomax-Smith base funding review (http://www.deewr.gov.au/HigherEducation/Policy/BaseReview/Documents/HigherEd_FundingReviewReport.pdf ), the argument from the sector is to fund it for its demonstrated needs if it is to make the fullest possible contribution to national innovation and productivity.  That all looks closer to the labor market rather than the accidental university model, but either way the question is what constitutes the “fullest possible contribution” and at what agreed and reasonable cost?

These are all obviously massive policy issues confronting governments that by and large have no firm grasp on the essential purpose and potential of their university systems, and that contains perhaps the toughest challenge for the sector: how to convince those governments of the need to invest at a time of economic downturn?  If only Keynes had written seriously and extensively about the returns on investing in universities!

Students in Jordan

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