The role of the university in city/regional development: a view from a Vice-Chancellor in Bristol

ericthomaspic1The entry has been kindly prepared for us by Professor Eric Thomas, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol.  Professor Thomas has been Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol since 2001.  Prior to that he was  Head of the School of Medicine, and later Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Health and Biological Sciences, University of Southampton.  Professor Thomas is currently a member of the Board of the South-West Regional Development Agency. He is Chair of the Research Policy Committee of Universities UK and a member of its Board.

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The United Kingdom is the classic high added-value, knowledge economy. We don’t dig anything out of the ground anymore and we don’t make anything in any great quantity anymore. Our economic success depends upon us providing high intellectual and creative skills, and on technological and service innovation.

Universities are at the heart of that in both providing the intellectual workforce and in technological innovation. It is said that in medieval times villages and towns were built around the manor house, in the Victorian era they were built around the factories and that, if we were building new towns and villages now, they would be built around universities. Certainly when the UK Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) put out a call for locations without higher education to apply for a new facility,  the 35 who applied would support the thesis.

I often compare the City of Bristol in 1961 with the City today. In 1961 Bristol was dominated by heavy engineering and manufacturing industry. The aerospace industry employed tens of thousands of people as did both tobacco and Fry’s chocolate. At that time, the University of Bristol had about 3000 students and 300 academic staff. It was a small consideration in the economy of Bristol and could exist, almost as an ivory tower, up the hill in Clifton and unengaged with the ambitions of the city.

bristol2If you now fast forward to 2009, all that industry except aerospace has gone. And yet, the University of Bristol is the largest independent employer in the city, responsible for 5500 jobs and a further 4500 from indirect employment. A study some years ago in the South West Region reported the economic impact of a university as 1.74 times turnover. A more recent study of London South Bank University by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which took into account the economic impact of the added value from the graduates through their lifetime, concluded that the impact was approximately six times turnover. Viewed like this, it would make the University of Bristol’s impact on the local and national economy in excess of £2 billion per year and higher education in general in the UK in the order of £100 billion per year or over 8% of GDP.

Of course, such figures will provoke dispute. However the general message of the importance of higher education to the local and national economies is now, I would argue, beyond question. How, therefore, does a university like Bristol respond to such a role which is relatively new?

The first important action is to ensure that working with the city is right at the center of your current public strategy. This is so for the current University Strategy, and will be strengthened in our Plan for 2009–2016.

Secondly the head of the institution must articulate that ambition clearly and become personally engaged with the city and region. For example, I am a member of the Partnership Board for the Bristol City Council which advises the Leader and Chief Executive. For six years I was a member of the Board of the South-West Regional Development Agency. I have been a trustee of an important local charity. Perhaps most importantly I assiduously attend all city social events and network with the other key players in the city and always articulate our desire to assist the city-region. I have also opened up the university for the use of many partners and organizations in the city.

More practically, we have a large Research and Enterprise Directorate which works closely with local businesses. Their aim is to ensure the most rapid transfer of knowledge and technology generated in the university and the easiest access possible for businesses to our skills and technical expertise. This is not only for big businesses. We have set up the Bristol Enterprise Network to assist knowledge transfer among the high tech, high growth SMEs in the Bristol sub-region. This currently has 1500 members. This not only provides networking opportunities but also news and information and training in business skills.

We need to work with key partners in the city particularly the National Health Service. The university provides nearly 200 medical staff for health care in the city and must work very closely with local health trusts, not only to ensure the best health care but also the best teaching and research opportunities for our professionals.

The university also provides most of the local teacher training and thus a very important set of professionals for the future of Bristol. Over a period of ten years or so, the University will have invested over £500 million in infrastructure which has knock-on effects in the local planning, architectural, building and legal services, to name but a few.

bristol11However it is not only in business that the university works with the city. Many of our staff are school governors or trustees of charities. We are working very closely on the development of a new school which opened in 2008,  Merchants’  Academy Withywood, in South Bristol. We have enormous numbers of cultural events and lectures which are open to the public. It is often overlooked that our academics travel all over the world. The people most commonly putting up Powerpoint presentations with the word ‘Bristol‘ in the title are the staff of the University.

Furthermore, our staff are massively networked internationally not only with other academics but also business and government. I get at least four “Google Alerts” a day about the University of Bristol from press all over the world. Stories about the University carry the name Bristol to all parts of the globe and all that PR and advertising comes free.

To some observers, the pressure on universities to increasingly be more global in ambition comes at a price.  However, I do not see any essential or intrinsic conflict,  between being an international, outward facing organization, and working to ensure that the local society gains as much as possible from its university. The two ambitions can be made to be completely compatible, though as I have argued above, both need to be championed and advanced together.

However, I would say that the role of the university in its local city and sub-region is one of the most enjoyable parts of leading a great university in 2009.

Eric Thomas

University institutional performance: HEFCE, UK universities and the media

deem11 This entry has been kindly prepared by Rosemary Deem, Professor of Sociology of Education, University of Bristol, UK. Rosemary’s expertise and research interests are in the area of higher education, managerialism, governance, globalization, and organizational cultures (student and staff).

Prior to her appointment at Bristol, Rosemary was Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Lancaster. Rosemary has served as a member of ESRC Grants Board 1999-2003, and Panel Member of the Education Research Assessment Exercise 1996, 2001, 2008.

GlobalHigherEd invited Rosemary to respond to one of the themes (understanding institutional performance) in the UK’s Higher Education Debate aired by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills  (DIUS) over 2008.

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Institutional performance of universities and their academic staff and students is a very topical issue in many countries, for potential students and their families and sponsors, governments and businesses. As well as numerous national rankings, two annual international league tables in particular, the Shanghai Jiao Tong,  developed for the Chinese government to benchmark its own universities and the commercial Times Higher top international universities listings, are the focus of much government and institutional  interest,  as  universities vie with each other to appear in the top rankings of so-called world-class universities, even though the quest for world-class status has negative as well as positive consequences for national higher education systems (see here).

International league tables often build on metrics that are themselves international (e.g publication citation indexes) or use proxies for quality such as the proportions of international students or staff/student ratios, whereas national league tables tend to develop their own criteria, as the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) has done and as its planned replacement, the Research Excellence Framework is intended to do. deem2

In March 2008, John Denham, Secretary of State for (the Department of) Innovation, Universities and Skills (or DIUS) commissioned the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to give some advice on measuring institutional performance. Other themes  on which the Minister commissioned advice, and which will be reviewed on GlobalHigherEd over the next few months, were On-Line Higher Education Learning, Intellectual Property and research benefits; Demographic challenge facing higher education; Research Careers; Teaching and the Student Experience; Part-time studies and Higher Education; Academia and public policy making; and International issues in Higher Education.

Denham identified five policy areas for the report on ‘measuring institutional performance’ that is the concern of this entry, namely: research, enabling business to innovate and engagement in knowledge transfer activity, high quality teaching, improving work force skills and widening participation.

This list could be seen as a predictable one since it relates to current UK government policies on universities and strongly emphasizes the role of higher education in producing employable graduates and relating its research and teaching to business and the ‘knowledge economy’.

Additionally, HEFCE already has quality and success measures and also surveys, such as the National Student Survey of all final year undergraduates for everything except workforce development.  The five areas are a powerful indicator of what government thinks the purposes of universities are, which is part of a much wider debate (see here and here).

On the other hand, the list is interesting for what it leaves out – higher education institutions and their local communities (which is not just about servicing business), or universities’ provision for supporting the learning of their own staff (since they are major employers in their localities) or the relationship between teaching and research

The report makes clear that HEFCE wants to “add value whilst minimising the unintended consequences”, (p. 2), would like to introduce a code of practice for the use of performance measures and does not want to introduce more official league tables in the five policy areas.  There is also a discussion about why performance is measured: it may be for funding purposes, to evaluate new policies, inform universities so they can make decisions about their strategic direction, improve performance or to inform the operation of markets. The disadvantages of performance measures, the tendency for some measures to be proxies (which will be a significant issue if plans to use metrics and bibliometrics  as proxies for research quality in  the new Research Excellence Framework are adopted) and the tendency to measure activity and volume but not impact are also considered in the report.

However, what is not emphasized enough are that the consequences once a performance measure is made public are not within anyone’s control.  Both the internet and the media ensure that this is a significant challenge.  It is no good saying that “Newspaper league tables do not provide an accurate picture of the higher education sector” (p 7) but then taking action which invalidates this point.

Thus in the RAE 2008, detailed cross-institutional results were made available by HEFCE to the media before they are available to the universities themselves last week, just so that newspaper league tables can be constructed.

Now isn’t this an example of the tail wagging the dog, and being helped by HEFCE to do so? Furthermore, market and policy incentives may conflict with each other.  If an institution’s student market is led by middle-class students with excellent exam grades, then urging them to engage in widening participation can fall on deaf ears.   Also, whilst UK universities are still in receipt of significant public funding, many also generate substantial private funding too and some institutional heads are increasingly irritated by tight government controls over what they do and how they do it.

Two other significant issues are considered in the report. One is value-added measures, which HEFCE feels it is not yet ready to pronounce on.  Constructing these for schools has been controversial and the question of over what period should value added measures be collected is problematic, since HEFCE measures would look only at what is added to recent graduates, not what happens to them over the life course as a whole.

The other issue is about whether understanding and measuring different dimensions of institutional performance could help to support diversity in the sector.  It is not clear how this would work for the following three reasons:

  1. Institutions will tend to do what they think is valued and has money attached, so if the quality of research is more highly valued and better funded than quality of teaching, then every institution will want to do research.
  2. University missions and ‘brands’ are driven by a whole multitude of factors and importantly by articulating the values and visions of staff and students and possibly very little by ‘performance’ measures; they are often appealing to an international as well as a national audience and perfect markets with detailed reliable consumer knowledge do not exist in higher education.
  3. As the HEFCE report points out, there is a complex relationship between research, knowledge transfer, teaching, CPD and workforce development in terms of economic impact (and surely social and cultural impact too?). Given that this is the case, it is not evident that encouraging HEIs to focus on only one or two policy areas would be helpful.

There is a suggestion in the report that web-based spidergrams based on an seemingly agreed (set of performance indicators might be developed which would allow users to drill down into more detail if they wished). Whilst this might well be useful, it will not replace or address the media’s current dominance in compiling league tables based on a whole variety of official and unofficial performance measures and proxies. Nor will it really address the ways in which the “high value of the UK higher education ‘brand’ nationally and internationally” is sustained.

Internationally, the web and word of mouth are more critical than what now look like rather old-fashioned performance measures and indicators.  In addition, the economic downturn and the state of the UK’s economy and sterling are likely to be far more influential in this than anything HEFCE does about institutional performance.

The report, whilst making some important points, is essentially introspective, fails to sufficiently grasp how some of its own measures and activities are distorted by the media, does not really engage with the kinds of new technologies students and potential students are now using (mobile devices, blogs, wikis, social networking sites, etc) and focuses far more on national understandings of institutional performance than on how to improve the global impact and understanding of UK higher education.

Rosemary Deem

‘University Systems Ranking (USR)’: an alternative ranking framework from EU think-tank

One of the hottest issues out there still continuing to attract world-wide attention is university rankings. The two highest profile ranking systems, of course, are the Shanghai Jiao Tong and the Times Higher rankings, both of which focus on what might constitute a world class university, and on the basis of that, who is ranked where. Rankings are also part of an emerging niche industry. All this of course generates a high level of institutional, national, and indeed supranational (if we count Europe in this) angst about who’s up, who’s down, and who’s managed to secure a holding position. And whilst everyone points to the flaws in these ranking systems, these two systems have nevertheless managed to capture the attention and imagination of the sector as a whole. In an earlier blog enty this year GlobalHigherEd mused over why European-level actors had not managed to produce an alternate system of university rankings which might counter the hegemony of the powerful Shanghai Jiao Tong (whose ranking system privileges the US universities) on the one hand, and act as a policy lever that Europe could pull to direct the emerging European higher education system, on the other.

Yesterday The Lisbon Council, an EU think-tank (see our entry here for a profile of this influential think-tank) released which might be considered a challenge to the Shanghai Jiao Tong and Times Higher ranking schemes – a University Systems Ranking (USR) in their report University Systems Ranking Citizens and Society in the Age of Knowledge. The difference between this ranking system and the Shanghai and Times is that it focuses on country-level data and change, and not  individual institutions.

The USR has been developed by the Human Capital Center at The Lisbon Council, Brussels (produced with support by the European Commission’s Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency) with advice from the OECD.

The report begins with the questions: why do we have university systems? What are these systems intended to do? And what do we expect them to deliver – to society, to individuals and to the world at large? The underlying message in the USR is that “a university system has a much broader mandate than producing hordes of Nobel laureates or cabals of tenure – and patent bearing professors” (p. 6).

So how is the USR different, and what might we make of this difference for the development of universities in the future? The USR is based on six criteria:

  1. Inclusiveness – number of students enrolled in the tertiary sector relative to the size of its population
  2. Access – ability of a country’s tertiary system to accept and help advance students with a low level of scholastic aptitude
  3. Effectiveness – ability of country’s education system to produce graduates with skills relevant to the country’s labour market (wage premia is the measure)
  4. Attractiveness – ability of a country’s system to attract a diverse range of foreign students (using the top 10 source countries)
  5. Age range – ability of a country’s tertiary system to function as a lifelong learning institution (share of 30-39 year olds enrolled)
  6. Responsiveness – ability of the system to reform and change – measured by speed and effectiveness with which Bologna Declaration accepted (15 of 17 countries surveyed have accepted the Bologna criteria.

These are then applied to 17 OECD countries (all but 2 signatories of the Bologna Process). A composite ranging is produced, as well as rankings on each of the criteria. So what were the outcomes for the higher education systems of these 17 countries?

Drawing upon all 6 criteria, a composite figure of USR is then produced. Australia is ranked 1st; the UK 2nd and Denmark 3rd, whilst Austria and Spain are ranked 16th and 17th respectively (see Table1 below). We can also see rankings based on specific criteria (Table 2 below).

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There is much to be said for this intervention by The Lisbon Council – not the least being that it opens up debates about the role and purposes of universities. Over the past few months there have been numerous heated public interventions about this matter – from whether universities should be little more than giant patenting offices to whether they should be managers of social justice systems.

And though there are evident shortcomings (such as the lack of clarity about what might count as a university; the view that a university-based education is the most suitable form of education to produce a knowledge-based economy and society; what is the equity/access etc range within any one country, and so on), the USR does, at least, place issues like ‘lifelong learning’, ‘access’ and ‘inclusion’ on the reform agenda for universities across Europe. It also sends a message that it has a set of values that currently are not reflected in the two key ranking systems that it would like to advance.

However, the big question now is whether universities will see value in this kind of ranking system for its wider systemic, as opposed to institutional, possibilities, even if it is as a basis for discussing what are universities for and how might we produce more equitable knowledge societies and economies.

Susan Robertson and Roger Dale

Strategic actors in the Eurolandscape: meet ‘The Lisbon Council’

Earlier this week we posted an entry on a new European Commission ‘Communication’ – a Strategic Framework for International Science and Technology Cooperation.

In working up this entry it became clear to us that some of the state-crafting language to describe different stages of the policy process in the construction of Europe needed decoding to enable the reader to assess the relative importance of particular initiatives. For example, what is a Communication? what is its status? who is it to? and so on. While this seems an obvious point to make–that the lexicon to describe aspects of the policy process is quite different around the globe–finding a web-link with an adequate explanation of this was quite a different matter.

So when today’s Policy Brief on University Systems Ranking from The Lisbon Council hit cyberspace (we’ll profile the briefing tomorrow), it seemed that here, too, was another instance when names and terms could be rather confusing. The tight linking of the idea of ‘Lisbon’ to ‘Council’ tends to suggest that this organisation is one of a number of European bodies that make up the official governing structure of Europe. However, this is not the case. thelisboncouncil

So, who are they, and how does The Lisbon Council fit into the Eurolandscape of policymaking? This is the first in a series of posts where we introduce key strategic actors involved in constituting and governing higher education within Europe and beyond.

The Lisbon Council–or more properly The Lisbon Council for Economic Competitiveness and Social Renewal–is an independent think-tank and policy network created in 2003 to advance the now famous Lisbon 2000 Agenda; of making Europe “…the most dynamic, globally competitive, knowledge-based economy in the world….”.

According to their website, The Lisbon Council, whose tag line ‘making Europe fit for the future’, is committed to

…defining and articulating a mature strategy for managing current and future challenges. Above all, we are seeking strategies based on inclusion, opportunity and sustainability that will make the benefits of modernisation available to all our citizens.

Our network – concerned citizens, top economists, public figures, NGO leaders, business strategists and leading-edge thinkers – lends its energy, brain power and dedication to solving the great economic and social challenges of our times. At the centre of our activities are solution-oriented seminars, thought-provoking publications, media appearances and public advocacy.

We can get a sense of the kind of strategic thinking The Lisbon Council advocate to realize a globally competitive Europe by also looking at its projects (including the Human Capital Center), publications, Founding Fathers Lecture Series, and u-Tube presence.

Four ‘founding fathers’ are identified for the Lecture Series as representing Europe’s innovative visionary past – The Robert Schuman Lecture (French politician and regarded as founder of the EU), The Ludwig Erhard Lecture (German politician who presided over the post War German recovery), The Jean Jacque Rousseau Lecture (French philosopher of enlightenment thinking/socialism), and The Guglielmo Marconi Lecture (Italian inventor).

This year the Guglielmo Marconi Lecture which we feature below was delivered by Charlie Leadbetter – well-known for his work with UK-based think-tank DEMOS. Leadbetter’s lecture engages with the Commission’s 2009 theme, creativity and innovation.

Now the important thing to point out is that The Lisbon Council think-tank agenda articulates closely with the ‘new Lisbon Agenda’, launched in 2005; to reorient and reinvigorate Lisbon 2000 agenda. It is at this point that we see the European Commission’s engagement with globalization as an outward looking strategy, the move toward supply-side economics, the prioritization of human capital strategies, greater questioning of the Social Europe policies, and a commitment to press ahead with the reform of Member State’s higher education systems to make a European higher education system. These commitments have been repeatedly reinforced by European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, as we see in his speech to The Lisbon Council earlier this year.

In following European policymaking in higher education, it is therefore important to look closely at organizations like The Lisbon Council, and the kind of futures thinking/policy shaping work they are engaged in as part of a wider governance of European higher education.

Susan Robertson

US/Turkish collaborations: bringing vocational schools into the global education sector

In the past three years I’ve had the great opportunity to give invited lectures, teach a graduate summer school course, and run research workshops at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey.

This has been a wonderful occasion for me to listen to, and engage with, lively and committed scholars and students around processes of globalization, Turkey’s application to the EU for accession, and the geo-strategic role of Turkey situated as it is between Asia and Europe.

So it was with great interest that I read in the Observatory for Borderless Higher Education’s (OBHE) latest bulletin; that Turkey had signed a deal with the US-based Community Colleges for International Development, Inc. An Association for Global Education to put into place an exchange between US and Turkish vocational schools.

The OBHE report was based on a lead article carried in the World Bulletin. For the Turkish Higher Education Council (YÖK), these collaborative partnerships will be instituted in 7-8 Turkish vocational schools in an attempt to improve the curriculum in Turkish vocational schools.

According to the Chairperson of YÖK, Professor Yusuf Ziya Ozcan:

Vocational schools are the engines of our economy. If these schools train the work force needed by our economy and industry, most of the problems in Turkey will be solved. If we can guide some of our high-school graduates to get further education at vocational schools instead of universities, this will diminish the crowds waiting at the doors of universities as well.

Operationalizing the program means that Turkish students would spend their first year in Turkey and get their second-year education at a U.S. vocational school, whilst US students would have a chance to spend a year in Turkey.

But, why the US and not Europe, as a model for vocational education? And why build student mobility into a vocational school program?

According to Professor Ozcan:

…the best thing to do on this issue was to get support from a country where vocational education system functioned smoothly, and therefore, they decided to pay a visit to USA.

This move by the Turkish Higher Education Council to collaborate on vocational education might be read in a number of ways. For instance, Turkey’s education system has historically had close links to US, particularly through its (former) private schools and universities. This is thus business as usual, only applied to a different sector – vocational schools.

Turkey is also a popular destination for US students studying abroad as part of their undergraduate program (see Kavita Pandit’s entry on dual degree programs between Turkey and SUNY/USA). The university residence where I stayed whilst teaching at Bogazici in 2007 was buzzing with undergraduate students from the US. Thus, this new exchange initiative might be viewed as further strengthening already existing ties along channels that are already established.

Adding a component of student mobility to vocational education in Turkey might make that sector more attractive to prospective students, whilst generating the kind of knowledge and demeanor global firms think is important in its intermediary labor force. This would give Turkey’s intermediary labor a competitive advantage in the churn for flexible skilled workers in the global economy.

This deal can also be read as the outcome of an ambivalence by Turkey and its education institutions toward Europe and its regionalizing project, and vice versa. And while there are serious moves in Turkish universities, toward implementing Europe’s Bologna Process in higher education, it seems Turkey–like a number of countries around the world–is weighing up its response to the globalizing education models that are circulating so that they keep a foot in both camps – the USA and Europe.

Susan Robertson

Higher education policy-making, stake-holder democracy and the economics of attention

In August (2008), the Beerkens’ Blog carried an interesting report on a new format being mobilized by both the Australian and UK governments respectively; to enable the public to have a say on the future of higher education. The format – a blog – is a new departure for government departments, and it clearly is a promising tool for governments in gathering together new ideas, promoting debates, and opening up spaces for stakeholders to offer perspectives.

However, though the nature of their projects were similar—to generate a Higher Education Debate about where higher education should go over the next decade or so—Beerkens’ comparison suggests that each of the two departments involved, the Australian’ Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEST) and the UK’ Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), were experiencing rather different levels of engagement with their publics. 

The question of why this should be the case, when the topic is important and widely debated, bears reflecting upon more closely. Is it because DEST commissioned an initial paper from an Expert Panel, with the result that the wider Australian public had something to get their teeth into compared with DIUS’s invitation to articulate a perspective? Or, was it a result of the fact that DIUS, a relatively new Department constructed when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as UK Prime Minister in 2007, has yet to be picked up on wider public’s radar? Is the Australian public more used to having their say using new web-based interactive tools, and therefore not phased when invited to do so? Or is the wider public in UK less willing to participate in a public airing of views?

Put another way, how and why is it that the wider Australian public pay attention to, and act upon, an invitation to participate, when their UK counterparts do not?

Whatever the reasons for the differences, or the merits of each of the initiatives, what is clear is that the deployment of new technologies, in themselves, do not necessarily generate participation by a wider polity. Participation is the outcome of the various players being aware of, and prioritizing, interactions of this kind. In other words, new technologies operate within an ‘economy of attention’ – a point well made by Richard Latham in his influential 2006 book The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information.

Now the essential point Latham is making is that we live in an information economy, and information is not in short supply. In fact, argues Latham, we are “drowning in it”. What is in short supply is ‘attention’! To grab attention, we need stylistic devices and strategies so that what Latham calls ‘stuff’—like debating the future directions for higher education—moves from the periphery to the center of attention.

This raises the interesting question of what stylistic devices and strategies government departments might use to ensure that they grab attention. In our GlobalHigherEd experience, simply ‘being a blog’ out there in the sea of information is not sufficient to generate attention? Moving ‘stuff’ from the periphery to the center takes thought and time; of how to catch and perhaps ride currents of interest. It means paying attention to the unique economy of attention and attempting to direct it in some way. Tags, categories, inter-textual links, networks and search engines all make up this complex terrain of attention getting/attention receiving. In this way, GlobalHigherEd (as well as the Beerkens’ Blog) has managed to contribute, to a degree, to structuring the field of attention – at least in the field of global higher education debates. This point is exemplified in Eric’s pump priming entry, loaded up today, regarding the Times Higher Education World University Ranking of 2008 that will be released tomorrow, and covered in the Beerkens’ Blog amongst several other outlets.

So, to all of you out there who really do have something to add to DIUS’s invitation to participate in wider public debates about the future of Higher Education in the UK on themes that range from part-time studies, demographic challenges, teaching and student experiences, internationalizing higher education, intellectual property, research careers and institutional performance – the soapbox is yours! DIUS really does want to hear from you.

References

Latham, R. (2006) The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Susan Robertson

China: from ‘emerging contender’ to ‘serious player’ in cross-border student mobility

Last year we carried a series of reports (see here, here and here) on the global distribution of student mobility. While the US and the UK had the lion’s share of this market, with 22% and 12% respectively, we noted China had made big gains. With 7% of the global market and in 6th place overall, it was an ’emerging contender’ to be taken seriously, with trends suggesting that it was a serious player as a net ‘exporter’ and importer of education services.

So it was with great interest I read today’s Chronicle of Higher Education report by reporter Mara Hvistendahl, on China now being ranked in 5th place (behind the US, UK, France and Germany) as an “importer” of foreign students. See this OECD chart, from its new Education at a Glance 2008 report, to situate this development trend and China’s current position [recall that China is not an OECD member country].

As the Chronicle report notes, this is a far cry from China’s 33 overseas students in 1950.

Given, too, that in 1997 there were only 39,000 foreign students whilst in 2007 there were some 195,000, this 5-fold increase in numbers in 10 years (Chinese Ministry of Education and the China Scholarship Council) represents a staggering achievement and the one that is likely to continue. So, how has China achieved this. According to the Chronicle report:

To attract students, China offers competitive packages, replete with living stipends, health insurance, and, sometimes, travel expenses. In 2007 the China Scholarship Council awarded 10,000 full scholarships — at a cost of 360 million yuan ($52-million) — to international students. By 2010 the council aims to double the number of awards.

Two-fifths of the 2007 grants went to students in Asia. In a separate scholarship program that reflects its global political strategy, China is using its strengths in science and technology to appeal to students in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, forming partnerships with governments in those regions to sponsor students in medicine, engineering, and agriculture.

But there are other factors as well pushing China up the ladder as an education destination. China is increasing regarded as a strategic destination by American students and the US government for study abroad. Figures reported by Institute of International Education fact-sheet on student mobility to and from the US show an increase of 38% in US students going to China in just 1 year (2005/2006). This also represents a profound shift in Sino-American educational relations.

In sum, these figures reflect the outcome of an overall strategy by China (perversely aided by the US’s own global trade and diplomacy agenda):

  • to develop a world class higher education system;
  • to internationalize Chinese higher education;
  • to stem the tide of students flowing out of China;
  • to attract half a million students to China by 2020; and
  • to advance Chinese interests through higher education diplomacy.

If realized, this would put China at the top of the exporting nations along with the US. It will also register China as a global higher education player with global impact. Without doubt this will change the geo-politics of global higher education.

Susan Robertson

OECD’s Education at a Glance 2008: a ‘problem/solution toolkit’ with problems?

Last week, or to be precise – on the 9th September at 11.00 Paris time, the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD), launched its ‘annual snapshot’ of the sector, Education at a Glance 2008. Within hours, the wheels of the media industry around the globe were pouring out stories of shame, fame, defeat and victory, whilst politicians in their respective countries were galvanized into action – either defending their own decisions or blaming a previous regime.

As previous entries in GlobalHigherEd (see here and here and here, as examples) argue, global indicators increasingly matter, not because they are always able to tell us much that is useful, but they work as a powerful disciplinary tool on nations. This, in turn, provides the issuing agent, in this case the OECD – ostensibly a ‘collective learning machinery’ – with an important mechanism for influencing the form and scope of education policies and programs around the globe. This is the tangible stuff of globalization – but this problem/solution toolkit is not without its own epistemological problems. Let’s take a look at two countries reported on this week – which headlined the OECD’s Report in the following way.

In the UK, the BBC and the Telegraph focused on the graduate league table, and the fact that the UK has not fared particularly well. The evidence? In 2000, the UK ranked 4th in the world in the number of school-leavers going to university. By 2006, this had plummeted to 12th.

Graeme Paton of the Telegraph reported on an interview with Andreas Schliecher, the OECD’s architect of Education at a Glance. According to Dr. Schliecher, the UK has major problems in producing school leavers with sufficient quality of credentials, whilst other countries have managed to sort out these problems and were already in the fast lane, leaving the UK behind.

Ministers canvassed by the Telegraph, however, insist that they were tackling the shortfall by encouraging more pupils to go to university and by pointing out the OECD good news story for the UK, that university graduates in the UK aged 25-64 earned 59 per cent more than other people – well above the national average.

In Canada, the influential Macleans magazine reported that in the OECD Education at a Glance comparisons, Canada was one of the few countries with the highest percentage of its population having completed post-secondary education. However, we are also given another statistic, and that is that the earnings advantage gained from completing post-secondary education in Canada had decreased in recent years and was quite low compared to other OECD countries. This is reflected in the lower average private rate-of-return on investment in post-secondary education relative to other nations in the OECD.

Let’s dwell, and not just ‘glance’, at these figures for a moment, and ask what is being reported here by the OECD:

  • competitive economies need a more highly educated workplace to perform more demanding work;
  • all countries need to encourage their young people to go to university and complete a degree; and
  • the incentives for this expenditure (which is increasingly being paid by families) are that there will be a higher rate-of-return to the student than if the student had not gone to university.

However, as we can see from our example above, countries with high levels of graduation (which the OECD says is good) report increasingly lower returns to graduates (ah…and is this not bad?).

Now, this is where the underlying human capital/homo-economicus rationale underpinning the OECD’s Education at a Glance begins to falter – for it cannot explain why it is that following the OECD’s prescriptions – of a high level of enrolment in higher education – reduces the overall earnings to the individual rather than increasing it.

While not one that is acknowledged in the repertoire of the OECD’s ‘problem/solution toolkit’ approach, this is where a sociological analysis is particularly helpful. As sociologists of education (see Phil Brown and Simon Marginson) have shown using Fred Hirsch’s insights on ‘positional goods’ tied to social status in his book The Social Limits to Growth, an advantage will only have economic value when no-one else has it. That is, its value depends on its scarcity. In other words, if we all have a graduate degree, then its value is diminished in the marketplace compared with when only half of us have one. This is part of the dynamic, for example, underlying degree inflation.

There’s also another issue, and this is the assumption that jobs in the ‘new knowledge economy’ will require us all to have graduate qualifications. However, the Confederation of British Industries (reported in the UK Guardian newspaper on the 17th Sept), disagrees, arguing that universities were producing far too many graduates leaving more than a million people in jobs for which they were overqualified. They argue that there are currently 10.1 million graduates in the UK, but only 9 million graduate jobs.

The deeper, and more tricky, question for policymakers now becomes: do we encourage everyone to hop onto the same credential treadmill with fewer and fewer returns and potentially higher levels of indebtedness? To be sure, there are important outcomes for individuals of a university education. However this experience is becoming more and more expensive, and the promised lifetime earnings are likely to be less and less. And who will shoulder the cost? Families? Employers? The State? And, how might the state and interrnational organizations, like the OECD, legitimate more and more credential inflation when the current ‘knowledge economy’ discourse is showing it to be somewhat hollow?

Or, ought we not think through what a range of trajectories might be that distributes talent/skills/training and investments over a wider portfolio of education/training/career options than is currently being presented to us?

Susan Robertson

Another ‘Alice in Wonderland moment’ with the further round of overseas scholarship funding cuts for UK universities?

This week I found myself experiencing another ‘Alice in Wonderland’ moment when news was circulated that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) would completely withdraw , by 2011, an important source of funding to English universities for scholarships for overseas students – the Overseas Research Students Award Scheme (ORSAS). Currently HEFCE contributes £13 million to this scheme in England, and £15 million overall (including Scotland and Wales).

This comes on top of an announcement in March of this year when UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, announced to the Parliament that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was terminating its 50 year old commitment made to the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. In essence this decision would cut funding to the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan – so that scholarships would only be available to developing countries. This funding, however, would not be available for doctoral studies.

Now, the recommendations of the report published in July 2008 by the UK Higher Education International Unit (ironically funded by HEFCE and UUK), The UK’s competitive advantage: The Market for International Research Students (see Executive Summary here), were that if the UK wanted to remain a global leader:

  • UK universities must develop a clear and attractive doctoral brand with emphasis on quality and innovation;
  • Initiatives that offset the cost of fees and living in the UK must be developed; and that
  • More needed to be done to illustrate the benefits of a British doctorate to an international audience and to counter the belief that Britain is an expensive place in which to study.

The Report notes that the UK’s key competitor countries, North America, Europe and Australasia, are all developing recruitment strategies aimed at the post graduate market, contributing to a declining share for the UK.

Given this Report; given, too, that demographic changes mean that by 2020 there will be 16% fewer 18 year olds coming through the university system; and given the stepping up of initiatives in other emerging countries around the globe, [for instance this week the Korean government announced that it not only planned to attract 100,000 foreign students to the country by 2010, but that it would double the number of scholarships available to foreign students by 2012 (currently 1,500) as well as loosen visa restrictions on work], it is difficult not to feel as if this is something of an Alice in Wonderland moment – that things in the UK higher education policy sector are getting ‘curiouser and curiouser’!

Alice, of course, was watching her body extend out like a large telescope, while her feet disappeared almost from sight – a distinctly odd sensation and sight. Musing over her almost disappearing feet and how she might have to send shoes and socks as presents to them to keep them going in the direction she wanted to go, Alice remarked: “Oh dear…What nonsense I’m talking!”

Watching the equally ‘odd’ reshaping of the UK overseas scholarship funding regime in the face of advice – that we should be funding more not less overseas doctoral scholarships, contributes to the distinctly odd sensation – of a kind of ‘policy-autism’ amongst the UK higher education’s research, advice and policymaking units with the result that we seem to be seeing and talking policy nonsense!

Unless, of course, things aren’t quite what they seem!

Susan Robertson

‘Passing judgment’: the role of credit rating agencies in the global governance of UK universities

This week, one of the two major credit rating agencies in the world, Standard & Poor’s (Moody’s is the other), issued their annual ‘Report Card’ on UK universities. This year’s version is titled UK Universities Enjoy Higher Revenues but Still Face Spending Pressures and it has received a fair bit of attention in media outlets (e.g., the Financial Times and The Guardian). Our thanks to Standard and Poor’s for sending us a copy of the report.

Five UK universities were in the spotlight after having their creditworthiness rated by Standard & Poor’s (S&P’s). In total, S&P’s assesses 20 universities in the UK (5 are made public, the rest are confidential), with 90% of this survey considered by the rating agency to be of high investment grade quality (of A- or above).

Universities in the UK, it would appear from S&P’s Report Card, have had a relatively good year from ‘a credit perspective’. This pronouncement is surely something to celebrate in a year when the word ‘credit crunch’ has become the new metaphor for economic meltdown, and when higher education institutions are likely to be worried about the affects of the sub-prime mortgage lending crisis on loans to students and institutions more generally.

But to the average lay person (or even the average university professor), with a generally low level of financial literacy, what does this all mean? Global ratings agencies passing judgments on UK universities, or policies to drive the sector more generally, or, finally, individual institutional governance decisions?

Three years ago, when one of us (Susan) was delivering an Inaugural Professorial Address at Bristol, S&P’s 2005 report on Bristol (AA/Stable/–) was flashed up, much to the amusement of the audience though to the bemusement of the Chair, a senior university leader. The mild embarrassment of the Chair was largely a consequence of the fact that he was unaware of this judgment on Bristol by a credit rating agency headquartered in New York.

Now the reason for showing S&P’s judgment on the University of Bristol was neither to amuse the audience nor to embarrass the Chair. The point at the time was to sketch out the changing landscape of globalizing education systems within the wider global political economy, to introduce some of the newer (and more private) players who increasingly wield policymaking/shaping power on the sector, to reflect on how these agencies work, and to delineate some of the emerging effects of such developments on the sector.

Our view is that current analyses of globalizing higher education have neglected the role of credit rating agencies in the governance of the higher education sector—as specialized forms of intelligence gathering, shaping and judgment determination on universities. Yet, credit rating agencies are, in many ways, at the heart of contemporary global governance. Witness, for example, the huge debates going on now about establishing a European register for ratings agencies.

The release, then, this week of the S&P’s UK Universities 2008 Report Card, is an opportunity for GlobalHigherEd to sketch out to interested readers a basic understanding of global rating agencies and their relationship to the global governance of higher education.

Rating agencies – origins

Timothy Sinclair, a University of Warwick academic, has been writing for more than a decade on rating agencies and their roles in what he calls the New Global Finance (NGF) (Sinclair, 2000). His various articles and books (see, for example, Sinclair 1994; 2000; 2003; 2005)—some of which are listed below—are worth reading for those of you who want to pursue the topic in greater depth.

Sinclair outlines the early development and subsequent growing importance of credit rating agencies—the masters of capital and second superpowers—arguing that there have been a number of distinct phases in their development.

The first phase dates back to the 1850s, when compendiums of information were produced for American financial markets about large industrial infrastructure developments, such as railroads and canals. However, it was not until the 1907 financial crisis that these early compendiums of information were then used to make judgements about the creditworthiness of debtors (Sinclair, 2003: 148).

‘Rating’ then entered a period of rapid growth from the mid-1930s onwards, as a result of state governments in the US incorporating rating standards into their prudential rules for investment by pension funds.

A third phase began in the 1980s, when new financial innovations (particularly low-rated or junk bonds) were developed, and cheaper offshore non-national money markets were created (that is, places where funds are raised by selling debt obligations and equity outside of the current constraints of government regulation).

However this process, of what Sinclair (1994: 136) calls the ‘disintermediation’ of financing (meaning state regulatory bodies are side-stepped), creates information problems for those wishing to lend money and those wishing to borrow it.

The current phase is now characterized by, on the one hand, greater internationalization of finance, and on the other hand hand, increased significance of capital markets that challenge the role of Banks, as intermediaries.

Credit rating agencies have, as a result, become more important as suppliers of the information with which to make credit-worthiness judgments.

New York-based rating agencies have grown rapidly since then, responding to innovations in financial instruments, on the one hand, and the need for information, on the other. Demand for information has also generated competition within the industry, with some firms operating niche specializations – for instance, as we see with Standards & Poor’s and the higher education sector, itself a subsidiary of publishers McGraw Hill,

Credit rating is big, big business. As Sinclair (2005) notes, the two major credit rating agencies, Moody’s and Standards & Poor’s, pass judgments on around a $30 trillion worth of securities each year. Ratings also affect rates or costs of borrowing, so that the higher the rating, the less risk of default on repayment to the lender and therefore the lower the cost to the borrower.

Universities with different credit ratings will, therefore, be differently placed to borrow – so that the adage of ‘the more you have the more you get’ becomes a major theme.

The rating process

If we look at the detail of the ‘issuer credit rating’ and ‘comments’ in the Report Card of, for instance, the University of Bristol, or King’s College London, we can see that detail is gathered on the financial rating of the issuer; on the industry, competitors, and economy; on legal advice related to the specific issue; on management, policy, business outlook, accounting practices and so on; and on the competitive position, quality of management, long term industry prospects, and wider economic environment. As Sinclair (2003: 150) notes:

The rating agencies are most interested in data on cash flow relative to debt service obligations. They want to know how liquid the company is, and where there will be timely problems likely to hinder repayment. Other information may include five-year financial projections, including income statements and balance sheets, analysis of capital spending plans, financing alternatives, and contingency plans. This information which may not be publicly known is supplemented by agency research into the value of current outstanding obligations, stock valuations and other publicly available data that allows for an inference…

The rating that follows – an opinion on creditworthiness—is generated by an analytical team, a report is prepared with the rating and rationale, this is put to the rating committee made up of senior officials, and a final determination is made in private. The decision is subject to appeal by the issuer. Issuer credit ratings can be either long or short term. S&P use the following nomenclature for long term issue credit ratings (see Bankers Almanac, 2008: 1- 3):

  • AAA – (highest/ extremely strong capacity to meet financial commitments
  • AA – very strong capacity to meet financial commitments
  • A – strong capacity to meet financial commitments, but susceptible to adverse affects of changes in circumstances and economic conditions
  • BBB – adequate capacity to meet financial commitments
  • BB – less vulnerable in the near term than other lower rated obligators, but faces major ongoing uncertainties
  • B – more vulnerable than BB – but adverse business, financial or economic conditions will likely impair obligator’s capacity to meet its financial commitments

Rating higher education institutions

In light of the above discussion, we can now look more closely at the kinds of judgments passed on those universities included in a typical Report Card on the sector by Standards & Poor’s (see 2008: 7).

The 2008 Report Card itself is short; a 9 page document which offers a ‘credit perspective’ on the sector more generally, and on 5 universities. We are told “the UK higher education sector has made positive strides over the past few years, but faces increasing risks in the medium-to-long term” (p. 2).

The Report goes on to note a trebling of tuition fees in the UK, the growth the overseas student market and associated income, an increase in research income for research intensive universities – so that of the 5 universities rated, 1 has been upgraded, another has had its outlook revised to ‘positive’, and no ratings were adjusted for the other three.

The Report also notes (p. 2) that the universities publicly rated by S&P’s are among the leading universities in the UK. To support this claim they refer to another ranking mechanism that is now providing information in the global marketplace – The Times Higher QS World Universities Rankings 2007, which is, as we have noted in a recent entry (‘Euro angsts‘), receiving considerable critical attention in Europe.

However, the Report Card also notes pressures within the system: higher wage demands linked to tuition increases, the search for new researchers to be counted as part of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), global competition for international students, and the heightened expectations of students for better infrastructure as a result of higher fees.

Longer term risks include the fact that by 2020, there will be 16% fewer 18 year olds coming through the system, according to forecasts by Universities UK – with the biggest impact being on the newer universities (in the UK these so-called ‘newer universities’ are previous polytechnics who were given university status in 1992).

Of the 20 UK universities rated in this S&P’s Report, 4 universities are rated AAA; 8 are rated AA; 6 are rated A, and 2 are rated BBB. The University of Bristol, as we can see from the analysts’ rating and comments which we have reproduced below, is given a relatively favorable rating. We have also quoted this rating at length to give you a sense of the kind of commentary made and how this relates to the judgment passed.


Credit rating agencies, as instruments of the global governance of higher education

Credit rating agencies are particularly powerful because both markets and governments see them as authoritative sources of judgment, with the result that they are major actors in controlling access to capital markets. And despite the evident importance of credit rating agencies on the governance of universities in the UK and elsewhere, there is a remarkable lack of attention to this phenomenon. We think there are important questions that need to be researched and the results discussed more widely. For example:

  • How widely spread is the practice?
  • Why are some universities rated whilst others are not?
  • Why are some universities’ ratings considered confidential whilst others are not (keeping in mind that they are all, in the above UK case, public taxpayer supported universities)?
  • Have any universities contested their credit rating, and if so, through what process, and with what outcome?
  • How do university’s management systems respond to these credit ratings, and in what ways might they influence ongoing policy decisions within the university and within the sector?
  • How robust are particular kinds of reputational or status ‘information’, such as World University Rankings, especially if we are looking at creditworthiness?

Our reports on these global rankings show that there are major problems with such measures. As we have profiled, and as has University Ranking Watch and the Beerkens’ Blog, there are clearly unresolved debates and major problems with global ranking schemes.

Clearly market liberalism, of the kind that has characterized this current period of globalization, requires new kinds of intermediaries to provide information for both buyer and seller. And it cannot hurt to have ‘outside’ assessments of the fiscal health of institutions (in this case universities) that are complex, often opaque, and taxpayer supported. However, to experts like Timothy Sinclair (2003), credit rating agencies privatize policymaking, and they can narrow the sphere of government intervention.

For EU Internal Market Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, the credit ratings agencies like Moody’s and S&P’s contributed to the current financial market turmoil because they underestimated the risks related to their structured credit products. As the Commissioner commented in EurActiv in June.: “No supervisor appears to have got as much as a sniff of the rot at the heart of the structured finance rating process before it all blew up.”

In other words, credit rating agencies lack political accountability and enjoy an ‘accountability gap’. And while efforts are now under way by regulators to close that gap by developing new regulatory frameworks and rules, analysts worry that these private actors will now find new ways around the rules, and in turn facilitate the creation of a riskier financial architecture (as happened with global mortgage markets).

As universities become more financialized, as well as ranked, indexed and barometered in the ways we have been mapping on GlobalHigherEd, such ‘information’ on the sector will also likely be deployed to pass judgment and generate ratings and rankings of ‘creditworthiness’ for universities. The net effect may well be to exaggerate the differences between institutions, to generate greater levels of uneven development within and across the sector, and to increase rather then decrease the opacity and therefore accountability of the sector.

In sum, there is little doubt credit rating agencies, in passing judgments, play a key and increasingly important role in the global governance of higher education. It is also clear from these developments that we need to pay much closer attention to what might be thought of as mundane entities – credit rating agencies – and their role in the global governance of higher education. And we are also hopeful that credit ratings agencies will outline their views on this important dimension of the small g governance of higher education institutions.

Selected References

Bankers Almanac (2008) Standards and Poor’s Definitions, last accessed 5 August 2008.

King, M. and Sinclair, T. (2003) Private actors and public policy: a requiem for the new Basel Capital Accord, International Political Science Review, 24 (3), pp. 345-62.

Sinclair, T. (1994) Passing judgement: credit rating processes as regulatory mechanisms of governance in the emerging world order, Review of International Political Economy, 1 (1), pp. 133-159.

Sinclair, T. (2000) Reinventing authority: embedded knowledge networks and the new global finance, Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, August 18 (4), pp. 487-502.

Sinclair, T. (2003) Global monitor: bond rating agencies, New Political Economy, 8 (1), pp. 147-161.

Sinclair, T. (2005) The New Masters of Capital: American Bond Rating Agencies and the Politics of Creditworthiness, New York: Cornell University Press.

Standard & Poor’s (2008) Report Card: UK Universities Enjoy Higher Revenues But Still Face Spending Pressures, London: Standards & Poor’s.

Susan Robertson and Kris Olds

UBV celebrates 5 years of “education revolution”

The Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV) – which refers to itself as the “House of Knowledges” – is celebrating its first five years, as the Bolivarian News Agency ABN reports. According to the report, the UBV is key to the revolutionary commitment of “constructing a Venezuela for all Venezuelans, in which social justice and equality rules”. The democratisation of higher education is envisaged as being achieved through the strategy of municipalisation, which means that the state-funded university is operating in all 335 municipalities, as well as in prisons and factories, to facilitate equal access opportunities.

A related article cites Education Minister, Héctor Navarro, stating the Venezuela has already achieved the Millennium Development Goals with respect to education, as well as Venezuela being one of the countries with the highest participation in higher education relative to its population. UBV’s teaching body is currently participating in an integral programme for the “education of educators”, which is centred around the politico-ethical education of the teacher in the construction of the new subjectivity, radical pedagogy, critical epistemology, and strategic planning. UBV’s director Yadira Córdova is quoted saying:

Making revolution in a university that takes pride in being revolutionary implies constructing the revolutionary subject, a political subject capable of taking up the project of this university as part of the national revolutionary project. As part of the Latin American transformation project, as part of the project of the liberation of the oppressed peoples of the world.

Indeed, there appears to be some reason to share the Venezuelan optimism. The graphs shown here, produced from data obtained from the World Bank and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), confirm that under Chávez, participation at all educational levels has substantially increased (including nursery, not displayed in the graphs).

Source: Produced from Education Trends and Comparisons, at http://go.worldbank.org/JVXVANWYY0 (accessed 20/05/2008).

Source: Produced from Social Indicators and Statistics (BADEINSO). Last accessed 20/05/2008, http://websie.eclac.cl/sisgen/ConsultaIntegrada.asp

Nevertheless, there is reason for concern with respect to justice and equality. While under the Bolivarian government all social strata have gained in access to higher education, the very large gap between the poorer and wealthier sectors remains wider than in the early 1980s. One conclusion, then, that we might draw is that the wealthy, in fact, remain the absolute winners of the past decades.

Thomas Muhr

Changing higher education and the claimed educational paradigm shift – sobering up educational optimism with some sociological scepticism

If there is a consensus on the recognition that higher education governance and organization are being transformed, the same does not occur with regard to the impact of that transformation on the ‘educational’ dimension of higher education.

Under the traveling influence of the diverse versions of New Public Management (NPM), European public sectors are being molded by market-like and client-driven perspectives. Continental higher education is no exception. Austria and Portugal, to mention only these two countries, have recently re-organized their higher education system explicitly under this perspective. The basic assumptions are that the more autonomous institutions are, the more responsive they are to changes in their organizational environment, and that academic collegial governance must be replaced by managerial expertise.

Simultaneously, the EU is enforcing discourses and developing policies based on the competitive advantages of a ‘Europe of knowledge’. ‘Knowledge societies’ appear as depending on the production of new knowledge, its transmission through education and training, its dissemination through ICT, and on its use through new industrial processes and services.

By means of ‘soft instruments’ [such as the European Qualification Framework (EQF) and the Tuning I and II projects (see here and here), the EU is inducing an educational turn or, as some argue, an emergent educational paradigm. The educational concepts of ‘learning’, ‘knowledge’, ‘skills’, ‘competences’, ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘qualifications’, re-emerge in the framework of the EHEA this time as core educational perspectives.

From the analysis of the documents of the European Commission and its diverse agencies and bodies, one can see that a central educational role is now attributed to the concept of ‘learning outcomes’ and to the ‘competences’ students are supposed to possess in the end of the learning process.

In this respect, the EQF is central to advancing the envisaged educational change. It claims to provide common reference levels on how to describe learning, from basic skills up to the PhD level. The 2007 European Parliament recommendation defines “competence” as the proven ability to use knowledge, skills and personal, social and/or methodological abilities, in work or study situations and in professional and personal development”.

The shift from ‘knowledge content’ as the organizer of learning to ‘competences’, with a focus on the capacity to use knowledge(s) to know and to act technically, socially and morally, moves the role of knowledge from one where it is a formative process based on ‘traditional’ approaches to subjects and mastery of content, to one where the primary interest is in the learner achieving as an outcome of the learning process. In this new model, knowledge content is mediated by competences and translated into learning outcomes, linking together ‘understanding’, ‘skills’ and ‘abilities’.

However, the issue of knowledge content is passed over and left aside, as if the educational goal of competence building can be assigned without discussion about the need to develop procedural competencies based more on content rather than on ‘learning styles’. Indeed it can be argued that the knowledge content carried out in the process of competence building is somehow neutralized in its educational role.

In higher education, “where learning outcomes are considered as essential elements of ongoing reforms” (CEC: 8), there are not many data sources available on the educational impact of the implementation of competence-based perspectives in higher education. And while it is too early to draw conclusions about the real impact on higher education students’ experiences of the so called ‘paradigm shift’ in higher education brought by the implementation of the competence-based educational approach, the analysis of the educational concepts is, nonetheless, an interesting starting point.

The founding educational idea of Western higher education was based on the transforming potential of knowledge both at the individual and social level. Educational categories (teaching, learning, students, professors, classes, etc.) were grounded in the formative role attributed to knowledge, and so were the curriculum and the teaching and learning processes. Reconfiguring the educational role of knowledge from its once formative role in mobilizing the potential to act socially (in particular in the world of work), induces important changes in educational categories.

As higher education institutions are held to be sensitive and responsive to social and economic change, the need to design ‘learning outcomes’ on the ‘basis of internal and external stakeholders’ perceptions (as we see with Tuning: 1) grows in proportion. The ‘student’ appears simultaneously as an internal stakeholder, a client of educational services, a person moving from education to labor market and a ‘learner’ of competences. The professor, rather than vanishing, is being reinvented as a provider of learning opportunities. Illuminated by the new educational paradigm and pushed by the diktat of efficiency in a context of mass higher education, he/she is no more the ‘center’ of knowledge flux and delivery but the provider of learning opportunities for ‘learners’. Moreover, as an academic, he/she is giving up his/her ultimate responsibility to exercise quality judgments on teaching-learning processes in favor of managerial expertise on that.

As ‘learning outcomes’ are what a learner is expected to know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate on completion of learning, and given these can be represented by indicators, assessment of the educational process can move from inside to outside higher education institutions to assessment by evaluation technicians. With regard to the lecture theater as the educational locus par excellence, ICT instruments and ideographs de-localize classes to the ether of ‘www’, ‘face-to-face’ teaching-learning being a minor proportion of the ‘learner’ activities. E-learning is not the ‘death’ of the professor but his/her metamorphosis into a ‘learning monitor’. Additionally, the rise of virtual campuses introduce a new kind of academic life whose educational consequences are still to be identified.

The learner-centered model that is emerging has the educational potential foreseen by many educationalists (e.g. John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, among others) to deal with the needs of post-industrial societies and with new forms of citizenship. The emerging educational paradigm promises a lot: the empowerment of the student, the enhancement of his/her capacity and responsibility to express his/her difference, the enhancement of team work, the mutual help, learning by doing, etc.

One might underline the emancipatory potential that this perspective assumes – and some educationalists are quite optimist about it. However, education does not occur in a social vacuum, as some sociologists rightly point out. In a context where HEIs are increasingly assuming the features of ‘complete organizations’ and where knowledge is indicated as the major competitive factor in the world-wide economy, educational optimism should/must be sobered up with some sociological scepticism.

In fact the risk is that knowledge, by evolving away from a central ‘formative’ input to a series of competencies, may simply pass – like money – through the individuals without transforming them (see the work of Basil Bernstein for an elaboration of this idea). By easing the frontiers between the academic and work competencies, and between education and training, higher education runs the risk of sacrificing too much to the gods of relevance, to (short term) labor market needs. Contemporary labor markets require competencies that are supposed to be easily recognized by the employers and with the potential of being continuously reformed. The educational risk is that of reducing the formation of the ‘critical self’ of the student to the ‘corporate self’ of the learner.

António M. Magalhães