Thirty-one experts  on higher education -- some of them high-ranking government officials -- gathered last week at Boston College to kick off an ambitious effort to study and offer suggestions on solving some of the most vexing programs facing academe.
The gathering is part of a Fulbright Program effort to not only promote the exchange of scholars, but to bring teams of scholars together to work on common issues. Those who gathered last week will spend the next year -- working together and apart -- to propose new ways for governments to support higher education and to assure its quality. The group will report to Unesco as well as to many governments around the world. Many of those involved are particularly interested in the issue of quality control in an era in which many colleges are experiencing unprecedented growth in enrollments and institutions.
"Global higher education issues are an extremely important thing for the Fulbright Program to undertake because the fabric on which we do all of our programs is the world's higher education institutions," said Patti McGill Peterson, executive director of the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, which administers major parts of the Fulbright Program.
Peterson stressed that the scholarly team -- which has 10 Americans -- is not trying to dictate solutions or any one solution to the problems being studied. "We're saying that these are global issues and national responses," she said. "A cookie-cutter approach isn't going to happen here," even if some of the problems being discussed will require greater international collaboration.
Several of the participants said, for example, that a key issue for them was to develop better ways to evaluate the private colleges that are sprouting up in developing nations, many of which can't meet the demand for spaces at their publicly financed institutions. (In the context of these discussions, "private" doesn't necessarily have the same meaning as it does in the context of nonprofit American colleges, but frequently involves for-profit investors, often from outside the countries of operation.)
Ethiopia, for example, had no private colleges 10 years ago, but now has 30, according to one of the Fulbright team members, Teshome Yizengaw, who as vice minister for higher education is the senior official for colleges in his country.
"We have more access now," with the addition of those institutions, on top of growth in the public sector, Yizengaw said. But he said that his country had no means to evaluate the quality of the new institutions, and that it was essential to do so. A majority of high school teachers in Ethiopia don't have college degrees, so the country faces great pressure to be sure that there are more spaces available, but also to be sure that future teachers are getting a good education.
Zulfiqar Gilani, director of the Center for Higher Education Transformation,  in Pakistan, said that private higher education did not really exist in his country until around 2000, but that private institutions now make up a majority of the 106 degree-granting institutions. (Enrollments are much larger in the public sector, however, which continues to educate most Pakistanis.)
Gilani, whose organization is independent of the government, said that at some of the new private institutions, "the quality is questionable and there are no laws or regulations in place," so he hopes that the Fulbright study can point to directions his country might take.
At the same time, he said, other private institutions are providing an outstanding education, frequently taking the best students (among those who can pay) and the best faculty members (who can command top salaries.) Gilani said he worried about "an internal brain drain," and wanted to study how a country like Pakistan can benefit from private colleges without undercutting a public system that is essential for low-income students.
Mohsen Elmahdy Said, who directs projects management for the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education, said that the problem for developing nations is that they need to add slots for students now, before they have figured out how to regulate or manage growth by government or private institutions.
"Egypt is now opening the door" to private and foreign providers, he said. "The problem with our higher education is that there is a decision to increase access, but without sufficient funding and facilities, so we need the private institutions, but we want to make sure that people are serious and can deliver on the courses of study that they are offering."
Said said that Egypt is beginning the process of creating a national accreditation system and that he hopes to bring information from the Fulbright study to use in that process.
Philip Altbach, who is leading the Fulbright project and is director of Boston College's Center for International Higher Education,  said "we have a great combination of people with deep administrative and leadership experience in higher education and of scholars."
Altbach said he thought the group could produce ideas that could be applied in many countries, although in different ways. "Countries and academic institutions and even individual people in the academic community need to make choices based on their own set of realities," he said. "What may work for Denmark may not work for Egypt, but hopefully they can take away ideas from what we will be doing."