Monday, 12 December 2011

What future is there for the 'Middle'?

Travelling to Vienna last week I had lots of time to read while sitting on planes or waiting for the next one, and took the opportunity to read a fascinating book on the US university system. The book is: Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities, by Richard A. DeMillo (MIT Press, 2011). Its basic aim is to explain the structure of American higher education, look at the trends and forces currently influencing the system, and sketch out possible ways forward. I'm writing about it here for two reasons: first, I found it an immensely interesting book and I think it needs to be better known; and second, it seemed to me that some of the messages in the book are highly pertinent to our own higher education system here in the UK.

DeMillo characterises the US higher education system in terms of three levels. At the top is a small number of elite institutions, typically carrying on their core teaching and research activities very much as in the past, suitably updated with modern technology where that proves useful. The third level is a rapidly growing sector of private, profit-seeking providers, essentially treating higher education as a business (and focusing heavily on what students want, and on the job market). In between can be found the great bulk of higher education institutions, what DeMillo terms the 'Middle'. Many of these institutions, the author contends, are engaged in a constant struggle to be more like the elite, but they are doing so with inadequate funding. They have neither the endowments nor the research money to compete successfully, and for most, there is little chance that that situation might change. The Middle certainly cannot compete - and survive - by constantly ratcheting up its tuition fees to cover rising costs.

At the same time, the almost unnoticed - and often derided - rise of the for-profit universities and colleges, as well as the growing diversity and quality of online and distance learning offerings, and the knowledge networking available through social media such as Facebook and the like, are rapidly creating a wholly new competitive environment, to which most institutions in the Middle have not even begun to find an answer (mostly because they haven't noticed the problem yet). In this new and increasingly challenging environment, DeMillo argues that most institutions in the Middle will have to change what they do and how they do it if they are to survive and prosper for long.

Yet there are huge pressures within the system towards conformity, preserving the traditional academic hierarchies and faculty-based institutional structures, while resisting experimentation and change. We think we know what a university ought to look like and what it should do - but our ideas are often those of a generation or two ago when few people attended university, so it really was an elite experience. We like the idea of knowledge for its own sake, and academic freedom (including institutions like tenure), and find it hard to get used to the idea that for most people nowadays, going to university is largely about learning things that will secure decent jobs in the future. Of course it's still important to transmit knowledge, but we probably need to pay a lot more attention to how our students learn, what they need to learn, and what environments are most conducive to learning and discovery. We probably know less about all this than we should.

Most likely there will always be space in a decent university system for a good deal of the traditional thinking and reflection, but this probably needs to be accompanied by a lot of imaginative re-thinking about what - for most people - university life is all about. It's not going to be the same as we have long been used to.

More on this theme in subsequent posts.

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