Unpacking the ‘flexibility’ mantra in US higher education

‘Flexibility’ is genuinely slippery concept, one that provides some sense of coherence with vagueness. It is also a concept that is a resource to be used in the pursuit of power.

I’m most familiar with the concept of flexibility in relationship to the changing nature of production systems. There has been a long debate in Economic Geography, for example, about phenomena like ‘flexible specialization’ and ‘flexible accumulation’. These interrelated concepts have helped scholars and industry analysts make sense of how production systems are evolving to cope with increasingly levels of competitive pressure, the emergence of global value chains, new forms of territorial development, and so on.

The concept of flexibility was also used, in abundance, when I lived and taught in Asia until 2001. It was frequently used in association with the corporatization (aka autonomy) agendas occurring at the same time as Asian higher education systems and institutions (HEIs) were expanding. Since then numerous systems of higher education (including Singapore, Malaysia, China) have seen expansion going hand in hand with rapid increases in funding, along with enhanced flexibility with respect to governance. Implementation problems exist, of course, and autonomy and flexibility mean different things to different people, but this was and still is the broad tenor of change.

It’s surely a sign of the times in America that we have also seen an expansion of the use of the concept of flexibility, though linked not to increased levels of funding, but to striking budget cuts. Given this, the concept of flexibility needs to be interrogated. This entry does that, though only in a very exploratory manner.

As noted above, flexibility is emerging as a keyword in some ongoing higher education debates in the US. For example, it is frequently used in in association with the ‘Charter University’ agenda in several states (e.g., Ohio). Closer to home (for me), flexibility was a mantra in deliberations and communications about the proposed ‘New Badger Partnership‘ (NBP) initiative put forward by the recently departed Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Carolyn ‘Biddy’ Martin) as well as the University of Wisconsin System alternative known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea Partnership‘ (WIP). If realized, the NBP would have led to the separation of UW-Madison from the UW System, along with numerous flexibilities and enhanced autonomy (from the System & the State). See here for an April 2011 summary of key elements of the NBP (vs the WIP), including proposed ‘flexibilities’ with respect to:

  • Budgeting
  • Tuition/Pricing
  • Human Resources
  • Capital Planning/Construction
  • Financial Management
  • Purchasing/Procurement
  • Governance
  • Accountability

In the end, the NBP was not supported by the State Government due to a complicated array of political factors, as well as a problematic planning process that generated ineffectual support on our campus.

Now, while the NBP is unlikely to be resurrected, some elements of it have been incorporated into the unfolding governance agendas reshaping both the future of the UW System and UW-Madison itself.  A state-appointed “Special Task Force on UW Restructuring and Operational Flexibilities” was recently established to consider the future of the UW System (it will report back by January 2013).

Given the debates about the NBP to date, and the announcement of even more budget cuts last week, it is inevitable that the  ‘flexibility’ mantra will continue to exist. Indeed last week we witnessed one Wisconsin politician (Alberta Darling) state that:

[U]niversities could use budget flexibilities passed by lawmakers in June as part of the budget. “It’s not going to be easy, but it can work out,” Darling said.

But what is the full meaning and significance of flexibility with respect to higher education? I’m not 100% sure, to be honest, but what I have noted is that there is more missing from the debate about ‘flexibility as solution’ than there is present. In short, there is a surprising absence of information about what flexibility is and can be defined as, what it can help achieve, and what its costs and limitations are.

There is also an absence of discussion about the long-term implications of relying on ‘flexibility’ to play a significant role in resolving what are in reality structural problems including the steady decline of state support for higher education, as well as the absence of a compact about optimal and necessary levels of support for public higher education. In other words the flexibility debate is a problematically truncated one.

In the interest of helping myself sort things out, I’ve put together a few thoughts and questions about flexibility. Please feel free to disagree with them, and/or add more to the list:

  • Flexibility as legitimacy vehicle: The discourse of ‘flexibility’ masks the scale of budget cuts by tying painful cuts to a hoped-for (and unbudgeted, see below) mediating factor. The chance of new flexibilities generating enough savings or new revenue streams to significantly cover the costs of proposed and actual budget cuts cannot be anything but marginal. The language of new forms of flexibility can let politicians off the hook in that they do not need to accept, in public and in private, responsibility for the full scale of the cuts they themselves are proposing.
  • Flexibility as reward: US politicians seem to be putting forth new flexibilities as a defacto reward of sorts if HEIs accept deep budget reductions. But why were these flexibilities held back for such a long time, including by politicians (Democrats as well as Republicans) who are ideologically predisposed to a constrained role for the state in the development process? And are these rewards indeed rewards for all? For example, flexibility on tuition can generate enhanced costs for students, or flexibility on governance can weaken the ability of some key stakeholders to participate in governance.
  • Flexibility as a means to enhanced governance: The offer of flexibility usually comes in association with significant budget cuts and new found demands regarding ‘accountability,’ ‘efficiency’, ‘transparency,’ and the like.  In most cases enhanced flexibilities come with enhanced forms of governance by Government, not less. These forms of governance can entail an attempt to reshape curricula, course offerings, program funding, faculty practices, etc. Agreements about some forms of flexibility have the capacity to enable Government to burrow more deeply, not less, into what happens within higher education institutions. The irony is that there is no correlation between declining levels of public funding and the desire to govern public HEIs.
  • Flexibility unbudgeted: Flexibilities are often put forward as a key solution to coping with budget cuts, but the potential cost savings associated with proposed changes are rarely (if ever) modeled in detail, nor in a transparent manner. This is arguably a politically-based ‘wish and a prayer’ approach to strategic planning.
  • Flexibility costs vis a vis implementation capabilities: The provision of many forms of flexibility involves shifts in the nature of governance, not its erasure. The recalibration process — pushing responsibilities up, or down (which is usually the case) — puts additional demands on the other units and officials. It is important to determine if these HEIs and officials have the capabilities to take on new responsibilities. If flexibility is distributed more widely, downwards, is there a ripple effect generated such that multiple units are now responsible versus the one before? Are proposed flexibilities more or less costly (in terms of labor costs) to implement in aggregate (e.g., across the campuses of a system)?
  • Flexibility’s power geometries: the application of ‘flexibilities’ in most institutional contexts involves the realignment of power relations at a state-HEI scale, and at an intra-institutional scale, with a planned breakdown of the status quo for good and bad. The realignment outcome often increases the power of some parties, and decreases the power of other parties. It is worth reflecting if this inevitable outcome is an implicit or explicit objective of proffered flexibilities, with an eye to the developmental agendas of various parties.

These are but six aspects I see associated with the emerging ‘flexibility’ agenda for public higher education in the US.

Who could be against flexibility? No one, really, and certainly not me (having worked in some very rigid systems of higher education)! But surely we need to be more critical about what the concept of flexibility really means given how frequently it is thrown around in this era of austerity. Given the nearly 200 years of building up a world class public higher education system in the US, the stakes are simply too high to allow concepts like flexibility be accepted at face value, especially if they mask agendas that are facilitating the decline of said system. This is the era of the ‘knowledge economy,’ after all, and higher education is a critically important dimension of the systems of innovation we are dependent upon for future prosperity.

Kris Olds

Deliberating about the meaning of “global competence” in a public US university

MasarahVanEyckEditor’s note: this guest entry has been kindly provided by Masarah Van Eyck. Masarah (pictured to the right) is Director of Communications for the Division of International Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before joining the Division in 2007, she served as a communications/development director and an editor for Wisconsin-based nonprofits. She is a freelance writer and holds a PhD in French history from McGill University.

This entry was just published in On Wisconsin, a magazine produced by the Wisconsin Alumni Association and University Communications for alumni and “friends” of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We sought permission to reprint it as the original article sheds light, in interesting ways, on deliberations about a key concept in global higher ed – “global competency”.  Representatives of universities throughout the world are grappling, in varying ways, with the notion of what a “global citizen” is, what “global competency” is (or even if it exists!), and to what purposes it should/could be used. Indeed it is worth noting that regardless of whether or not this complicated concept is a coherent one, global competency is being used to frame and legitimize the restructuring of policies, teaching and research programs, hiring, admissions, pedagogy, and even built form and aesthetics, on an increasing number of campuses. It is thus important to engage with the concept, and understand how it is being constituted in variable ways, in different places and times.

Our thanks to Masarah Van Eyck, and to the editors of On Wisconsin as well as University Communications, for permission to reprint this article (the original title is ‘Global Views’). Our thanks, too, to the following students whose photographs were used to accompany the original article, and which are included below. We include the original accompanying text here: Anna Green ’09 (placed first in the Urban Landscapes category of the UW’s annual Study Abroad Photo Contest coordinated by International Academic Programs. She shot the photo in 2008 while studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina);  With her photo, “Pottery Market,” shot in Cuenca, Ecuador, in 2006, Kathryn Broker-Bullick ’06 garnered second place in the People and Culture category of the UW’s annual Study Abroad Photo Contest; “Fira at Dusk” captured second place in the Urban Landscapes category for John Vanek ’08, who shot the photo in 2007 in Santorini, Greece; Adam Sitte ’08, who studied in Cairo, Egypt, in 2007, earned second place in the People and Culture category of the UW’s annual Study Abroad Photo Contest for his photo, “Ibn Tulun Mosque.”; Tyler Knowles ’05 submitted this photo following his study abroad in England. He shot the image of a musician on the island of San Marco in Venice; A girl signs “I love you” in this photo, shot in Ngileni, South Africa, in 2007. Libbie Allen ’08, who studied in Cape Town, South Africa, earned first place in the People and Culture category of the UW’s annual Study Abroad Photo Contest; Laura Burns ’09, who studied in Seville, Spain, in 2008, earned third place in the Natural Landscapes category for this photo, which she shot in Hallstatt, Austria; Emily Palese x’10, who studied in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2008, earned second place in the Natural Landscapes category of the UW’s annual Study Abroad Photo Contest for her photo, “Hierve del Agua.” Kris Olds

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la-boca-barrioGLOBAL VIEWS

A new expectation is making the list of must-have abilities for today’s students: global competence. But where do you go to get it, and how do you know when you have it?

Jill Spear doesn’t think she has it, but says she knows people who do. Natalie Eisner x’09, whose mother is French, thinks she possesses some degree of it, while Catherine Skroch x’09, a child of missionaries, is confident that she’s had it most of her life. Claire de Boer x’09 isn’t sure how much of it she has, but she’s certain that studying abroad in French West Africa will give her more of it than, say, spending a year in France.

It is global competence, one of the latest buzzwords in higher education. My interest in the concept was piqued last winter when I traveled to a training ground of sorts — Saint-Louis, Senegal, the site of one of the UW’s more innovative study-abroad programs. There, several UW students were studying at the Université Gaston Berger, living in dormitories with Senegalese roommates, and in the midst of producing a fifty-page paper based on independent fieldwork.

For four months they had been immersed in the French and Wolof languages, and in a largely Muslim culture. (It had been equally long since they had taken a hot shower or washed their clothes in a machine.)

After a week of talking with students halfway through this challenging educational experience, I learned that most were pretty sure that they were acquiring global competence — that essential set of skills, attitudes, and knowledge they will need to succeed in today’s world. But when I queried one of the directors of the program, Jim Delehanty, about the notion, the story got more complicated.

Masarah2Delehanty has been to Senegal “twelve or so” times, he estimates. He spent years in the Peace Corps and later conducted research for his doctorate in Niger. He’s lived in Kenya and Kyrgyzstan. He speaks French and Hausa well, and knows enough Wolof “to make people smile,” he says.

Yet he doesn’t consider himself particularly globally competent.

“It’s a nice concept,” he says during a conversation in his office at UW-Madison, where he serves as associate director of one of the nation’s premier African studies centers. “[But] I’m just not sure it exists in practice.”

Anyone watching the news — and the economy — knows that the world is getting smaller, if not exactly, as author Thomas Friedman puts it, “flatter.” Trade, migration, pandemics, global warming, and a radical shift in wealth from the West to the East — all of these factors and more indicate that we’re living in a world of global challenges that will require global solutions. Our graduates need a mindset to match the world around them. But how exactly do we teach and assess these skills?

Like many universities, UW-Madison committed itself to “internationalizing” its curriculum a couple of decades ago. No longer the exclusive domain of liberal arts departments, international education is increasingly important in professional schools such as engineering, health sciences, and business. Students in the UW’s College of Engineering, for example, can now earn an international certificate by taking sixteen credits of courses that focus on the language, history, or geography of another culture. And programs including Engineers without Borders and the Village Health Project provide students with a chance to participate in community development and public health projects around the world.

Masarah3Impressively, more than a third of UW-Madison’s business undergraduates earn some credits abroad, as do more than half of its MBA students. And these students are pursuing the experiences for good reason: the top-ranked Thunderbird School of Global Management, with its patented Global Mindset Inventory used to measure one’s capacity to conduct business on a world stage, says that “individuals with a high stock of Global Mindset … know how to manage global supply-chain relationships … and understand global competitors and customers.”

But as international outlooks and skills become integral to core curricula, universities increasingly face the challenge of evaluating their students’ progress. And this means starting by defining the result: global competence.

A team of UW-Madison faculty, staff, and students recently set out to write that definition. Called the Global Competence Task Force, the group released its findings last fall, delineating not only what the term means, but also how UW students might best acquire it.

Randy Dunham, a management professor who directs the business school’s Center for International Business Education and Research, chaired the initiative. On his desk sits a photo frame that rotates digital images of his own travels through the years: animals spotted on safari, a temple in Asia, and a ruin in the Middle East. (Interestingly, several iPods sit stacked on the table between us as we talk. I later learned that these were prizes for an annual, weeklong competition that drew MBA students from as far away as Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Copenhagen.)

Despite his own global leanings, however, Dunham says the task force took a soft-sell approach in its campus wide proposal.

“We are not recommending requirements or standards,” he explains. “We knew that if we said [global competence] is this many languages or this many area-studies courses, it would have been too contentious to be adopted.”

In addition, says Gilles Bousquet, dean of UW-Madison’s Division of International Studies, the group knew that there is no one-size-fits-all definition.

“Global competence isn’t going to look the same in engineering, the health sciences, or the humanities — and it’s also going to mean something different to an educator, an executive, or the head of an NGO [nongovernmental organization],” he says.

Masarah4Instead, the task force listed the components or “competencies” that make up a global mindset, hoping that each campus unit would adopt the definition. Predictably, perhaps, they include the ability to work and communicate effectively in a variety of cultures and languages, and the capacity to grasp the interdependence of nations in a global economy. Somewhat surprisingly, though, many of the core competencies indicate a kind of stance or attitude — the proclivity to engage in solving critical global issues, for example, and a willingness to see the world from a perspective other than one’s own.

What the team doesn’t define, however, is what level of competency is sufficient.

“Developing global competency is a lifelong process,” says Marianne Bird Bear, assistant dean of the Division of International Studies, who sat on the task force. “The university’s role is to make students aware that all disciplines — political science, agriculture, health care — have global, cross-cultural aspects to them. Our job is to provide the training and experiences to develop the global skill set necessary … to address a given problem or understand a certain condition.”

Accordingly, the team recommends that campus units require each incoming undergraduate to adopt a “global portfolio” to record the relevant courses and experiences he or she acquires while pursuing a degree. A second part of the portfolio outlines how these activities specifically translate into global abilities that would be attractive to future employers or graduate schools. In developing this portfolio, the team posits, students will plan their educational paths with an eye toward gaining global competencies.

With a goal of clearly defining expectations, Dunham says, “We asked ourselves, ‘What is it going to take to motivate students to see global education as essential?’ We want to create the impression as students come in that it’s normal, that global education is expected.”

Masarah5While instilling any kind of cross-campus mandate may be slow going, convincing students of the value of international education seems to be a no-brainer. These days, many are well on their way to global-mindedness long before entering college.

Before coming to Senegal, political science and agronomy student Brenda Lazarus x’09 had traveled extensively and studied abroad in high school. She values her friendships with international students on campus for the exposure they give her to perspectives from, say, Mexico or the Philippines. A Minnesota native, Lazarus says that international exposure helps her develop a good knowledge of diverse issues and cultures so that “if [I] go abroad for [my] work or deal with someone from a different culture,
everything will go well.”

What’s more, she says, learning about other cultures has given her the self-possession she’ll need for the work she hopes to pursue in an overseas governmental agency or NGO after graduation.

Anyone who has moved to another country can recount that moment when the romance of living in a new culture was tempered by everyday concerns — a visit to the doctor, for example, or the need to decipher a cell-phone plan. These are the moments when we see other parts of the world as equally complex and mundane as our own, and not just as the colorful backdrop for our adventures.

What is more, the challenge of independently producing, say, a fifty-page thesis or meeting the academic standards of a world-renowned university in another language means that students must take seriously the “study” in “study abroad.”

Masarah6“I’m more independent now,” Lazarus tells Delehanty and me at the Senegal university’s buvette, an outdoor snack bar, over instant coffee in cups stamped “Made in China.” “I’m more confident that, whatever situation I’m in, I can deal with it.”

(Of course, the UW’s International Academic Programs office concerns itself, first and foremost, with students’ safety, briefing them before departure, establishing onsite points of contact, and maintaining a 24/7 hotline.)

To Dunham, developing confidence is essential. “International exposure challenges the way people see, the way they think, the things they see,” he says. “It makes them much more competitive professionally.”

Such exposure also prepares students for jobs that are “outside of their comfort zones,” he adds. “If you’ve done a study abroad in India, is it going to be intimidating for you to live in New York City? I don’t think so.”

Even those who choose to live and work in Wisconsin will be ill prepared without a global mindset, says Mary Regel ’78, director of the Bureau of International Development in Wisconsin’s Department of Commerce, who served on the UW’s global task force.

“Companies are looking for employees who have a broad view of the world,” she says. “They want their workforce to be cognizant and respectful of other cultures. Wisconsin is becoming more diversified, and it’s a rare company these days that doesn’t have some interaction with other cultures.”

Dunham puts it bluntly: “If you only think domestically, you’re more limited in your own choices and, ultimately, you limit the vision of the firm or company you work for.”

For some students, success in the job market — while a welcome byproduct — isn’t the only reason to enhance their global competence.

“Globalization has offered enormous opportunities to the human race,” says Bousquet, who founded UW-Madison’s pioneering Professional French Master’s Program. “But it’s also opened many challenges, most pressing among these the need to keep the human condition — to ensure secure and just lives for everyone — at the center of our focus.”

Masarah7 Happily, studies reveal that global competence seems to go hand-in-hand with the kinds of qualities, such as open-mindedness and compassion, we’ll need to prevent and repair the inequalities that our shrinking planet presents. Recently, a senior scientist at the Gallup Organization released findings from a Global Perspectives Inventory suggesting that those who see themselves as global citizens most often also feel a need to “give back to society” and “work for the rights of others,” and demonstrate a willingness to grapple with complex issues that may present more than one solution.

The director of Harvard’s International Education Policy Program recently argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education that globally minded people would more likely respond to world events with empathy, interest, and understanding. Second only to these qualities are those that speak more to skills than attitude: the ability to communicate in different languages, for example, and a broad and deep knowledge of world histories and cultures.

Global competence, you might say, is a combination of cross-cultural knowledge and the kind of personal and intellectual inner journey that an international experience offers.

To Delehanty, who has overseen the progress of study-abroad students for a decade, and who knows better than most how the world opens eyes, it’s the notion of mastery that is troublesome.

Masarah8“I guess the idea of ‘competence’ makes me uneasy — the thought that there’s a skill set that we all need to master,” Delehanty told me on our last day in Senegal. “Isn’t it really the opposite? Isn’t humility the common denominator of people who function effectively away from home? There are uncountable opportunities in our lives to learn humility. I’m not convinced there is an internationalist version of it.”

Still, he concedes, going abroad will surely shake up your certainties if nothing has done so before. And that uncertainty leads to a new kind of insight.

As one UW student in the Senegal program, influenced by her everyday French, concluded, “It’s like there is savoir and then there is connaissance. You can know a lot about the world, but global competence is about understanding it.”

Masarah Van Eyck