Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The other side of the pond

In keeping with my view that we in the UK need to be looking further afield when seeking ideas to help us reform higher education, I've recently been taking a look at some fascinating new books on American universities. One of these books is by Robert Zemsky, Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education, published in 2009 by Rutgers University Press. Zemsky was a member of Margaret Spelling's 2005 Commission on the Future of Higher Education, but apparently only signed the final report with some reluctance. His book is, in a sense, his account of what the Commission ought to have said.

Given this background, he spends some time reviewing some of the current debates in US higher education, as well as the Commission's own findings and recommendations. The Commission sought to focus on four areas, namely access, affordability, accountability and quality, but Zemsky argues that instead of providing constructive ways forward for US universities this focus merely provided critics with lots of ammunition. The result was little or no reform, and a loss of credibility for the Commission. However, the Commission's work did provide a starting point for more positive lines of thinking. Thus Zemsky highlights a couple of concerns that are highly relevant for the UK, too, when he argues (pp124, 125):
'First, we must understand why so many socioeconomically disadvantaged students start but do not complete their college education. ... Second, the nation will have to cast a much wider net when thinking about how to control costs and limit price increases.'
Turning to his positive advice, Zemsky is keen to move beyond lots of issues that people think are problems but where reform (in his view) is next to impossible - e.g. a topic that has little UK resonance, he urges the reader not to be concerned about the big money sports in US universities. Instead, he suggests three key areas around which feasible reforms can be constructed. These are: learning; attainment; and money. Thus (p202):
'Higher education will have to rethink what it means to be a learning enterprise, including the role the new electronic technologies and insights from the neurosciences have to play in recasting what happens in the classroom, laboratory, and library'
As regards attainment, the key is to find ways of enabling students in secondary schools to reach a point where they are better prepared for college-level education. And last, university funding in the US is too dependent on tax breaks and unstable credit markets, with considerable lack of clarity about pricing and the underlying cost structures.

All this, I think, offers us a good deal of food for thought on this side of the pond.

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