Thursday, 20 September 2012

Modernising higher education: How to do it?

Well, here I am in Budapest, probably my favourite city, as a guest of the Budapest Corvinus University. My visit is paid for by the EU, through some funding to promote academic links and mobility between EU universities, and the deal involves me giving a lecture in the University, which for my present visit takes place this afternoon. My lecture will be on the theme of institutions and transition (to a market economy), something that has occupied much of my research time in recent years.

As has often been the case when I have visited Hungary, there is a lot of talk in the universities about reforming curricula and course structures, improving the teaching materials provided to students, and all that sort of thing. More worryingly, I think, there are strong centralising tendencies in Hungary just now, with the present government thinking that it can best control economic life - and, as it turns out, educational life, too - through controlling appointments to key positions. This seems to me quite an unhealthy and undesirable tendency, more about asserting political control and not much to do with improving quality, either in the economy or in the universities.

So how can we improve quality in the universities, either in Hungary or back home in the UK? And what, indeed, do we mean by quality?

My thoughts about this were stimulated at the beginning of September by an article written by John Kay for the Financial Times, in which he was discussing the disruptive aspects of significant innovations, and hence  the tendency for established firms to resist them. Let me simply quote his final paragraph:

'Economic growth is held back by industries where established interests are so powerful that disruptive innovation can be staved off for ever. Financial services is probably one. And education another. I often think of the contrast between the power of information technology to transform the process of learning, and the little progress that has been made towards actually doing so.'

On this view, new ideas, new approaches to teaching may not even originate in the established universities, because vested interests - used to old ways of doing things, and thinking they know best - will firmly resist major innovations, and will even complain loudly about the rise of upstart institutions trying to organise teaching differently. The traditional universities will protest about falling quality, when what they might really be resisting is the rise of wholly new types of educational 'product'. We don't know yet, but the next decade or so will undoubtedly reveal a rapidly changing market structure in the world of higher education, pointing in all sorts of new directions. Some of these will do well, some will, naturally, fail, as is quite normal.

For myself, I have spent my entire career in traditional universities, I am used to the models and methods of teaching that we employ, and have even accepted a few minor changes now and again, as systems evolve. But the way we teach now is not really vastly different from the way it was 30-40 years ago, aside from some bigger classes, larger seminar groups, and a bit more classwork and continuous assessment than we used to have. But all this does little more than scratch the surface of the traditional model, and how sure can we be that what we do is really the 'best' model for most of our students?

Moreover, even the quality assessments that are carried out now are based on the presumption that this model is indeed the right way to do things. So anyone offering something quite different, would have a hard time getting a good quality rating, I suspect. In this sense, the traditional model of the teaching function in universities is very much self-reinforcing, and resistant to change. Naturally, we regulate the system by controlling who has the power to award degrees and other qualifications, and such privileges are jealously guarded.

But nowadays there are many pressures that might open up higher education to disruptive innovation, and I'll write more about these in my next posting.

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