PARIS -- Concisely summarizing the themes of any conference is difficult; doing so for a meeting where the 30 main speakers hailed from 15 countries and gathered to talk about a topic as broad as where higher education is headed around the planet seems a fool's errand.
And yet the striking thing about the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's biennial higher education conference  that ended here Wednesday was that, despite the vast differences in how higher education institutions are operated and funded and governed from country to country, there was enormous commonality in the issues and problems they're facing, the questions their governments are asking of them, and how their leaders are responding.
The differences are many, and can't be ignored: Countries such as Australia  and many Latin American nations are continuing to pour money into higher education despite the global recession, even as many other nations withdraw funding. Nordic countries like Denmark still provide tuition-free education, while the United States, among others, wrestles with ever-mounting student debt.
And where political leaders in the U.S. are responding to the economic downturn and perceived stagnation in higher education’s performance by increasing their scrutiny and regulation of the industry, governments in places such as Australia are deregulating higher education, giving institutions more freedom to grow.
But those contrasts (and more permanent historical differences like the centralized, ministerial way in which many countries govern higher education versus the more autonomous approach taken in North America) aside, the accumulated analyses shared by the researchers, government officials and campus administrators who spoke at the OECD conference left an overpowering sense of a higher education establishment dealing – or, in some important ways, failing to deal – with like challenges.
Much of this related to the issue that was front and center in the minds of virtually everyone here: the economic downturn. Because this is, as the OECD’s education chief, Richard Yelland, put it, the “most synchronized recession in OECD countries in over half a century,” most countries are squeezing or at least freezing the budgets of their public colleges. Institutions that are not (or are less) dependent on government funds are having their own struggles. In Brazil, reported Heather Eggins, a visiting professor at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde, many small private colleges that "have found it very difficult to make ends meet" are “being bought up by large conglomerates,” a trend that is likely to resonate with those watching a similar trend emerging in the United States.
The financial cutbacks for publicly supported colleges come even as government leaders, almost to a country, ask increasingly more of their postsecondary institutions in terms of expanding access for students, driving economic growth, and contributing to their countries’ social and cultural development.
Those ever-growing demands on colleges and universities are prompting politicians in many places to ask harder questions about postsecondary (or “tertiary,” the favored term in much of the world) productivity, quality, and performance. OECD officials have in recent years taken to talking about governments doing their “steering” of higher education “at a distance,” Yelland said this week. “I wonder whether that distance may be getting a little bit shorter.”
That idea is certainly likely to resonate with college officials in the United States, who have watched the last two federal government administrations aggressively reconsider higher education’s system of peer-reviewed quality assurance and, now, craft a brand-new mechanism for assessing the extent to which vocational programs prepare their students for jobs.
Such searching for new metrics is also taking place in countries like Denmark, where government leaders have typically embraced “output-oriented numbers” such as the production of graduates to hold universities accountable -- “very primitive numbers,” said Johan Roos, president of Copenhagen Business School, a 17,000-student university. Roos said that he is seeking to prod the conversation in a direction that would better measure how graduates of institutions like his contribute to society -- such as “how much our students pay in taxes,” he said.
Yojana Sharma, a London-based writer on higher education, said she believed that institutions would (or at least should) increasingly be judged by clearer measures of what institutions contribute to their graduates. “We need to be capturing what it is that adds value to those students, for that really is the value of universities as well,” she said. “We have all these students coming off a conveyor belt with ‘B.A.’ stamped on their heads, and what really distinguishes them from each other?”
If the approach of governments’ raising expectations at the same time they are withholding financial support is widespread, so too is the frustration that it is causing among college leaders and others, the OECD meeting made apparent.
Bert Vandenkendelaere, chairman of the European Students’ Union, presented a statement drafted by student leaders  that challenged the widely held assertion -- captured in the meeting’s subtitle, “Doing More With Less” -- that higher education leaders must accept that government support has peaked, and that institutions will have to increase their performance while making do with less money.
“Shouldn’t we at least be talking about ‘achieving more with at least the same’?” he said.
Shinichi Yamamoto, of Hiroshima University's Research Institute on Higher Education, echoed that call, saying that in an increasingly knowledge-based society in which universities are expected “to play a more important role, why should we accept the reality” that higher education should make do with less? “Do we need to do more to appeal to the importance of higher education?” Why is our voice so small? he wondered.
Aims McGuinness, senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, said the answer to that question is attributable in part to the lack of sophistication of political leaders in many countries, where the audience for that message “is more like a parade than a fixed entity.” Significant turnover and short-term political thinking require college leaders to make their arguments to “people who don’t have a clue about a long-term agenda” for economic and social development.
But higher education leaders themselves are also responsible because too often they fail to show how their institutions are “really connected with the quality of life and long-term economy” in their states, regions or countries. Cash-strapped colleges are “ignoring access in their own area in search of paying students elsewhere,” he said. That, together with strategies at research-intensive institutions that too often focus on interests other than their communities’ needs, may make politicians think, “Why would you put the money down that kind of enterprise?” McGuinness said.
University leaders may have undercut their own case for more public support by emphasizing (in part to justify ever-rising tuition increases) the value of a college degree to individuals, said Sharma. “Education has been commodified, but who has done that? The universities themselves. That may mean you’ve got what’s coming."
One other commonality that emerged during the three days of the OECD meeting: skepticism about higher education institutions' ability, or willingness,to change. Tom Boland, who heads Ireland's Higher Education Authority, said the three days of discussion at OECD had left him unsure "that the majority of people believe the world has changed utterly" by the global recession, as the conference's title suggested. The thinking seems to be, 'Let's hold our nerve, hunker down, wait for the crisis to pass and for things to return to normal," he said. "And normal is ... Australia, where we just get lots more money for doing the same thing we've always done." (Note: This article was updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)
And when Roos of Copenhagen Business School raised the specter that current economic distress might prompt within higher education the sort of "creative destruction" that has driven innovation in other recalcitrant industries (such as journalism), Daniel Samoilovich of Columbus, which promotes higher education collaboration between Europe and Latin America, expressed bemused skepticism about university officials' tendency to cling to what they already have.
In what was undoubtedly among the most memorable lines of the conference, Samoilovich said: "People in higher education are very creative, but they don't show much interest in destroying anything."