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There was a time, perhaps twenty years ago, when the whole world wanted the American system of higher education.  American had the world’s most buoyant economy, a booming tech market, all apparently underpinned by a great, competitive meritocratic system of universities.  Imitating it was the central if not fully-stated goal of China’s 985 program, Japan’s “Big Bang”, Germany’s Excellence Initiative and half a dozen other major national higher education systems.

At the heart of most of these plans was a desire for many countries to introduce a little more stratification in their systems.  To outside eyes, the unbelievable concentration of scientific talent at the top American universities was something desperately to be desired.  In Europe in particular, the overriding thrust of higher education policy since the 1950s had been to create large systems of universities with very flat prestige hierarchies, with the result that very few still seemed “great” in global perspective – a truth that was brutally driven home when the first Shanghai rankings were produced in 2003 and European universities were notable by there absence at the top of the league table.  Governments (and some university Presidents) began to believe that If only a few of their institutions could “break out” into greatness and provide a model for others to follow, then some of the gloss of the big American private research universities and the tech-market which was at least vaguely connected with it would rub off on their countries, too.

Of course, what everyone was focussed on was the stratification of research outcomes.  The fact that this went hand-in-hand with other forms of stratification never really seemed to make it into the discussion.  In fact, while Americans knew and were increasingly concerned about stratification at top institutions and the pipeline they created to government (every President since Reagan has been to an Ivy League School, every Supreme Court Justice since Sandra Day O’Connor either attended Harvard or Yale), or finance (see Lauren Rivera’s excellent but stomach churning book on how finance and consulting companies hiring practices in Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs which I reviewed back here), this wasn’t what outsiders always saw.  They could see massive aid packages to low-and-middle-income students, contextual admissions, strong concern for ensuring some kind of racial balance – all of which were lacking in most European countries.  The separate admission procedures for competitive athletes was seen as a bit weird and idiosyncratic, but did not undermine the central conclusion, which was that big American universities had through policy and (admittedly) rather generous endowments had found ways to make sure that research stratification and social stratification need not go hand in hand.   Many indeed thought that perhaps some of their own more stratified institutions (eg. Oxford, Tokyo, etc) could learn a thing or two from the American approach.

And then reality intruded.

Over the course of the 2000s and early 2010s, evidence began to mount that education was ceasing to fulfill its traditional role as a social elevator in the United States.  By 2017, Raj Chetty and others were starting to produce hard data on income mobility on a college-by-college basis and it looked ugly: a number of “top” colleges were educating more students from the top 1% of family incomes than they were from the bottom 60%.  Last month’s college admissions scandal did not so much prove inequality as demonstrate the ways in which all those admissions practices which seem interesting and innovative to foreign eyes can be perverted in order to reinforce stratification rather than combat it.

So now the whole notion of stratification as a solution to national concerns about excellence and innovation has a serious credibility problem.  The realization that it may not be so easy to divorce stratification in research outcomes from social stratification of the student body has come at a time where general concern about inequality has been reaching peaks not seen since before the Second World War.  If there were solid and durable economic growth, one might be able to argue that some social stratification was a price to pay for a rising tide lifting all boats; the problem is that while that ship may not have sailed for ever, but it certainly has not been seen in over a decade.  

We may now possibly be seeing the start of a very important backlash. French President Emmanuel Macron began openly musing about shutting down the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration(ENA), because of the way monopolizes the funnel of talent into government and industry (Macron himself is a graduate) and the way its admissions process is seen as rigged in favour of the children of the elite.  In China, there is continuing public argument over the geographic rationing of spaces in top universities to the significant benefit of the (much wealthier-than-average) residents of the Shanghai and Beijing.  And in the US, there is increasing criticism of the tax breaks given to donors to private universities like Yale and Harvard that continue to restrict enrolment to a numerically tiny academic elite.     

Put all of this together with the rather clear indication that most of the various “excellence schemes” adopted all over the world in the first years of this century have made precious little difference in terms of shaking up the global academic hierarchy, and one wonders whether or not we may start to see a new and sustained policy reaction against notions of stratification and in favour of broader notions of progress in higher education.  Perhaps we will move to a world where the models to emulate will be countries where high proportions of students are taught in high quality institutions (e.g. Canada, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands) rather than ones where a few students are taught in world-beating ones; where breadth of quality trumps concentrations of “excellence”.

It is difficult to conclude from all this – yet- that the global obsession with “world-classness” is over.  But for the first time in at least twenty years, we may be starting to see the pendulum move in the other direction.


Alex Usher is President of Higher Education Strategy Associates.


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