Has higher education become a victim of its own propaganda?

eh.jpgEditor’s note: today’s guest entry was kindly written by Ellen Hazelkorn, Director, and Dean of the Faculty of Applied Arts, and Director, Higher Education Policy Research Unit (HEPRU), Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland. She also works with the OECD’s Programme for Institutional Management of Higher Education (IMHE). Her entry should be read in conjunction with some of our recent entries on the linkages and tensions between the Bologna Process and the Lisbon Strategy, the role of foundations and endowments in facilitating innovative research yet also heightening resource inequities, as well as the ever present benchmarking and ranking debates.

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councilpr.jpgThe recent Council of the European Union’s statement on the role of higher education is another in a long list of statements from the EU, national governments, the OECD, UNESCO, etc., proclaiming the importance of higher education (HE) to/for economic development. While HE has long yearned for the time in which it would head the policy agenda, and be rewarded with vast sums of public investment, it may not have realised that increased funding would be accompanied with calls for greater accountability and scrutiny, pressure for value-for-money, and organisational and governance reform. Many critics cite these developments as changing the fundamentals of higher education. Has higher education become the victim of its own propaganda?

At a recent conference in Brussels a representative from the EU reflected on this paradox. The Lisbon Strategy identified a future in which Europe would be a/the leader of the global knowledge economy. But when the statistics were reviewed, there was a wide gap between vision and reality. The Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, which has become the gold standard of worldwide HE rankings, has identified too few European universities among the top 100. This was, he said, a serious problem and blow to the European strategy. Change is required, urgently.

sciencespo.jpgUniversity rankings are, whether we like it or not, beginning to influence the behaviour of higher education institutions and higher education policy because they arguably provide a snap-shot of competition within the global knowledge industrial sector (see E. Hazelkorn, Higher Education Management and Policy, 19:2, and forthcoming Higher Education Policy, 2008). Denmark and France have introduced new legislation to encourage mergers or the formation of ‘pôles’ to enhance critical mass and visibility, while Germany and the UK are using national research rankings or teaching/learning evaluations as a ‘market’ mechanism to effect change. Others, like Germany, Denmark and Ireland, are enforcing changes in institutional governance, replacing elected rectors with corporate CEO-type leadership. Performance funding is a feature everywhere. Even the European Research Council’s method of ‘empowering’ (funding) the researcher rather than the institution is likely to fuel institutional competition.

In response, universities and other HEIs are having to look more strategically at the way they conduct their business, organise their affairs, and the quality of their various ‘products’, e.g., educational programming and research. In return for increased autonomy, governments want more accountability; in return for more funding, governments want more income-generation; in return for greater support for research, governments want to identify ‘winners’; and in return for valuing HE’s contribution to society, governments want measurable outputs (see, for example, this call for an “ombudsman” for higher education in Ireland).

European governments are moving from an egalitarian approach – where all institutions are broadly equal in status and quality – to one in which excellence is promoted through elite institutions, differentiation is encouraged through competitive funding, public accountability is driven by performance measurements or institutional contacts, and student fees are a reflection of consumer buoyancy.

But neither the financial costs nor implications of this strategy – for both governments and institutions – have been thought through. The German government has invested €1.9b over five years in the Excellence Initiative but this sum pales into insignificance compared with claims that a single ‘world class’ university is a $1b – $1.5b annual operation, plus $500m with a medical school, or with other national investment strategies, e.g., China’s $20b ‘211 Project’ or Korea’s $1.2b ‘Brain 21’ programme, or with the fund-raising capabilities of US universities (‘Updates on Billion-Dollar Campaigns at 31 Universities’; ‘Foundations, endowments and higher education: Europe ruminates while the USA stratifies‘).

Given public and policy disdain for increased taxation, if European governments wish to compete in this environment, which policy objectives will be sacrificed? Is the rush to establish ‘world-class’ European universities hiding a growing gap between private and public, research and teaching, elite and mass education? Evidence from Ireland suggests that despite efforts to retain a ‘binary’ system, students are fleeing from less endowed, less prestigious institutes of technology in favour of ‘universities’. At one stage, the UK government promoted the idea of concentrating research activity in a few select institutions/centres until critics, notably the Lambert report and more recently the OECD, argued that regionality does matter.

Europeans are keen to establish a ‘world class’ HE system which can compete with the best US universities. But it is clear that such efforts are being undertaken without a full understanding of the implications, intended and unintended.

Ellen Hazelkorn

One thought on “Has higher education become a victim of its own propaganda?

  1. Pingback: Australia, be careful what you wish for « GlobalHigherEd

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