The temporal rhythm of academic life in a globalizing era

The globalization of higher education and research is associated with a wide variety of shifts and changes, many of which (e.g., branch campuses) are debated about in relatively intense fashion. Other aspects of this transition, though, receive little attention, including the temporal rhythm of academic life; a rhythm being simultaneously maintained, extended, reduced, and bracketed.

In many ways not much has changed for we continue to follow a seasonal rhythm: the build up to term, the fall and spring cycles (punctuated by brief breaks of variable lengths), and then a longer summer ‘break’. When I was an undergraduate my summers were associated with work at fish canneries, mineral prospecting, and drill camps (throughout British Columbia and the Yukon) – the legacy of living amidst a resource-based staples economy.

Summers during graduate student life in Canada and the UK were focused on research, with some holiday time. And summers now, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US (pictured to the right, at dusk), are associated with a mix of research and writing time, university service, and holiday time with my family. But the real temporal anchor is the twin semester (or quarters for some) cycle split by a summer break.

Scaling up, the rhythm of institutional life follows aspects of this seasonal cycle, albeit with noteworthy national and institutional variations. For example, research administrators kick into higher gear in the US and UK (where I am a visiting professor) during the summer and winter breaks before important national funding council deadlines, yet even research active university libraries shut down for much of the summer in France for the annual holiday cycle. Human resources managers everywhere get busy when new faculty and staff arrive in the July/August and December/January windows of time. We all welcome and say goodbye to many of our students at key windows of time throughout the year, whilst the term/semester/quarter cycle shapes, in bracing ways, the rhythms of contract (sessional) lecturers.

In an overall sense, then, it is this year-to-year seasonal rhythm, with fuzzy edges, that continues to propel most of us forward.

The globalization of higher education and research, though, is also extending, reducing, and bracketing our senses of time, as well as the structural rhythmic context in which we (as faculty members, students, and staff) are embedded.

For example, research on key ‘global challenges’ – something a variety of contributors to GlobalHigherEd have been reflecting about, and something international consortia (e.g., the Worldwide Universities Network) are seeking to facilitate – is inevitably long-term in nature. This is in part because of the nature of the issues being addressed, but also because of the practicalities and complications associated with developing international collaborative research teams. This said, government funding councils are resolutely national in orientation — they have a very hard time matching up budgetary and review cycles across borders and tying them up to the agendas of large international collaborative teams (CERN and a few other exemplars aside). So while research agendas and relationships need to be long-term in nature, we have really yet to develop the infrastructure to support a longer-term temporal rhythm when it comes to international collaborative research on ‘global challenges’.

Long-term thinking is also evident in the strategic thinking being undertaken by the European Commission regarding the role of universities in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), as well as the European Research Area (ERA), in the context of the Lisbon agenda. Related forms of long-term thinking are evident in a whole host of agencies in the US regarding ‘non-traditional’ security matters regarding issues like dependency upon foreign graduates (e.g., ‘the coming storm’), comparative ‘research footprints’, and the like.

Moving the other way, the reduction and/or bracketing of temporal rhythms is most obvious in the higher education media, as well as the for-profit world of higher education, or in the non-profit world once endowments are created, and bonds are sold.

On the media front, for example, higher education outlets like US-based Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the UK-based Times Higher Education, are all active on a daily basis now with website updates, Twitter feeds, and once- to twice-daily email updates. The unhurried rhythms of our pre-digital era are long gone, and the pick-up in pace might even intensify.

On the for-profit and ratings front, stock value and revenue is tracked with increased precision, quarterly and annual reports are issued, and university data from networks of acquired universities are bundled together, while fund managers track every move of for-profit education firms. Interesting side effects can emerge, including replicant or Agent Smith-like dynamics where multiple offerings of honorary degrees to Nelson Mandela emerge within one network of universities controlled by the for-profit Laureate International Universities.

Ratings agencies such as Moody’s are also developing increased capacity to assess the financial health of higher education institutions, with a recent drive, for example, to “acquire liquidity data to provide a more direct and accurate gauge of the near-term liquidity standing” of each rated institution (on this issue see ‘Moody’s Probes Colleges on Cash’, Inside Higher Ed, 16 June 2010).

Or take the case of national governments, which are beginning to develop the capacity to track, analyse and communicate about international student flow vis a vis export earnings (see recent data below from Australian Education International’s Research Snapshot, May 2010).

This bracketing of time, which takes place in the Australian case on a combined monthly/annual cycle so as to enhance strategic planning and risk assessment at institutional, state, national, and international scales, has become both more thorough and more regular.

These are but a few examples of the new rhythms of our globalizing era. Assuming you agree with me that the temporal rhythm of academic life is being simultaneously maintained, extended, reduced, and bracketed, who has the capability to adjust rhythms, for what purposes, and with what effects?

I’ll explore aspects of this reworking of temporal rhythms in a subsequent entry on the global rankings of universities; a benchmarking ‘technology’ (broadly defined) that bundles together universities around the globe into annual cycles of data requests, data provision, and highly mediatized launches.

Kris Olds

Moody’s ‘Special Comment’ report on the global recession and public/private universities

They say a year is a long time in politics. This last year has been a particularly long one, not only in political and policy circles, but for whole nations and their institutions. The sub-prime mortgage collapse quickly turned into a fiscal meltdown and is now a full-blown global recession.  ‘Hunkering down’, weathering the effects, and practicing ‘recession-style prudence and risk management’ is now the new game in town.

So how are universities doing in this highly uncertain, fiscally-brutal environment? Clearly there are many kinds of stories which can and are being told — from departments closing to new ventures being advanced.

One story being put forward is by Moody’s — one of the two big global rating agencies whose pronouncements on the creditworthiness of nations and institutions makes them particularly powerful and worth noting (see also our earlier background report on rating agencies and higher education).

In June, Moody’s released a Special Comment report on higher education called Global Recession and Universities: Funding Strains to Keep Up with Rising Demand which makes for particularly interesting reading. The lead author of the report is Roger Goodman, Vice President-Senior Credit Officer, Moody’s Investors Service, New York.  Our thanks to University World News for bringing the report to our attention in their 5 July story ‘US: Universities fair well in recession, says Moody’s‘), and to Moody’s for permission to publish the figure below.

Essentially their argument is that (particularly public):

…universities are proving to be appealing investments for government stimulus efforts due to the sector’s stabilising, countercyclical nature in the short term as well as its potential to stimulate long term economic growth.

…Most universities demonstrate countercyclical ability to increase student enrollments during recessions, receive relatively strong support from sponsoring governments, and offer long term potential for increasing revenue diversity.

On page 3 of their report, Moody’s offer a useful graphic on the enrollment impact of recessions (see Fig 1 below).

MoodysFig1

In other words, as the economy nose-dives, individuals are more likely to consider investing in more education as a means of waiting out the recession, and positioning themselves for the labour market when it revives. For Moody’s this all means a possible ‘tail-wind’ for universities as student demand increases — particularly those who have an access oriented agenda.

Moody’s Report outlines 5 key ideas:

  1. While universities will experience some stress, they will be more sheltered than other sectors.
  2. Public university ‘credit quality’ will be steadier than that of private universities
  3. Private universities can achieve a high rating if they are able to show evidence of sustained demand, financial strength and liquidity is clear
  4. Universities are likely to seek more alternative sources of funding to offset the pressure on government balance sheets and limitations on public funding growth
  5. Despite efforts at diversifying, the public sector will continue to play a central role

There are several issues worth noting here. The first is that individuals have been encouraged to invest in a graduate education, very often at considerable personal expense (loans and so on) with the promise of future earnings that outpace non-graduate earnings. If wages are depressed across the public and the private sectors because governments and firms are having to manage the consequences of bailing out the banks, then a graduate education might not be as appealing as it once was.

Second, aside from the stark black and white categorizing of ‘public’ and ‘private’ in this report (for instance, is the University of Sydney, or the University of Wisconsin-Madison, public or private given that both receive around 14-18% of their core budget from government funding?),  Moody’s also offers us something of a paradox.

To weather the storm, public universities are going to have to become more ‘private’ in order to augment meagre government budgets.  However, the more private a once public university is, the greater the risk. Is this not a classic case of catch-22?

Susan Robertson