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'A World Changed Utterly'

September 14, 2010

PARIS -- "We must identify ways to achieve higher quality and better outcomes at a time of increased demand and declining resources."

Statements like that will sound familiar to anyone who has spent more than a half hour at virtually any higher education meeting in the United States since 2008 (or, failing that, who has read Inside Higher Ed's coverage of such meetings), as the global recession stifled if not strangled many state economies, and by extension the country's.

While the statement above could have been uttered by just about any of the American higher education leaders who are attending the general conference here this week of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Institutional Management in Higher Education program, it wasn't. It came from Richard Yelland, who heads OECD's Education Management and Infrastructure Division, and is the convener of the meeting.

He was describing the conference's theme, "Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing More with Less," by which the organization is referring both to what Yelland called the "most synchronized recession in OECD countries in over half a century" and trends -- such as government pushes to expand access to higher education and dramatically changing technological capabilities -- that the historic downturn is in many cases exacerbating.

The roughly 500 government officials, institutional leaders, researchers and others at the meeting heard a wide array of analyses and opinions -- including American higher education leaders like Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University System, whose description of his state's own sorry situation set a foreboding tone for the meeting. Speakers discussed both how dire the economic downturn is likely to be and, more importantly, how likely colleges and governments are to respond to the pressures on them in substantive ways.

For all the talk about how this is a time of opportunity as well as challenge, the general consensus so far seemed to be that in most countries, as in the United States, the chosen path for college leaders seems to be just muddling through.

"For the most part, people have gone through the traditional remedies," said Peter West, first secretary of the University of Strathclyde, in Scotland, who presented with a colleague, Heather Eggins, on the global impact of the financial crisis on higher education. Colleges and their government patrons are putting off capital projects, increasing their staff-to-student ratios, bringing in more foreign (and other full-tuition-paying) students, and taking other steps that embrace a short-term view. Elaine El-Khawas, a professor of education policy at George Washington University, whose presentation took a historical look at how previous fiscal crises (from the Great Depression through the serious downturn of the early 1980s) affected higher education in the United States, agreed that so far, the response from most of higher education has been "incremental."

If it were an economic crisis alone, those steps might be sufficient, they and others argued. But the downturn has occurred amid other developments that were already straining many institutions and their countries, including:

  • Aggressive efforts in places like Ireland, Britain and China to democratize access to college for low-income and other underrepresented students.
  • The graying of the population as the Baby Boom era fades, and the changes in technology that are changing the way many students (and would-be students) want to receive their education
  • Greater institutional competition for students of all types by knocking down geographic and other barriers and making it easier for new colleges (and types of colleges, notably for-profit ones) to compete.

The combined effect of those trends, along with the economic derailment, has affected different countries somewhat differently. Andrée Sursock, a senior adviser to the European University Association who co-wrote its Trends 2010 report, noted a continuum of pain including major cuts (so far) to higher education in Latvia, Greece and Italy, somewhat smaller cuts in places like Britain and Ireland, situations worsening only now in many Nordic countries, and surprising increases in university funding -- in the face of imperfect economic situations -- in France and Germany.

Even more of an outlier along that continuum is Australia, based on the report from David Hazlehurst, who leads the higher education group of his government's Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Sandwiched between Reed's depiction of the difficulties in California and similarly discouraging economic reports from the Bahamas and Europe, Hazlehurst seemed almost apologetic as he described the comparatively rosy financial situation in Australia, achieved "through a mixture of having a sound budget position going into the crisis, government stimulation of the economy, and being closely tied to the economic growth in China," he said. (A chart showing Australia's very low debt levels compared to those in other countries was particularly striking.)

Higher education there has benefited, with the government making an aggressive push to increase the share of the population with a bachelor's degree to 40 percent by 2025 -- with the added goal of having 20 percent of those degree recipients hail from low-income backgrounds. Between 2010-11 and 2014-15, Hazlehurst said, the government aims to increase its spending on higher education by nearly a third, with much of that increase focused on transitioning the funding system to one that uncaps enrollments and allows institutions to compete for students.

Growth of that sort presents challenges of its own, which Hazlehurst acknowledged: concerns about degree quality, questions about the share of the increased cost of education that students themselves (vs. the government) should absorb, and the mix of vocational vs. liberal education. But it seemed that many of the higher education and government officials in the audience would accept those challenges to be in Australia's financial situation right now.

Monday was the meeting's first day, and most of its discussions were aimed at defining the problem -- with today's and Wednesday's program more focused on potential solutions (though magic bullets are unlikely, of course).

But there was talk (from Cal State's Reed and others) of potentially meaningful changes such as more mergers of colleges, the prospect of more three-year degrees beyond the countries where they are already the norm, reductions in credit-hour requirements for degrees, major restructuring of academic programs, and significantly different tuitions for different types of programs.

And there was a broad, if somewhat predictably self-serving, consensus from most of the speakers that higher education cannot cut or innovate its way out of the current fiscal troubles, and that college leaders needed to find more effective ways of making the case that the roles that higher education plays -- for individuals in terms of education and skills and for cities and states and countries in terms of economic development and intellectual capital development -- warrant not just continued, but enhanced, government support.

"I hold the belief that higher education in most countries is underfunded," said El-Khawas, of George Washington University.

"We have to work harder at proving" to political leaders that the massive expansion of educational attainment many countries are now seeking is wise, and worth additional financial support, said West, of the University of Strathclyde. "It's a case that can and has to be made."

 

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