Maybe Not So Flat

At gathering of university leaders from around the world, some are unwilling to embrace the critique of higher education currently popular in American circles.

March 14, 2012

LONDON -- When Ben Wildavsky reviewed many of the problems facing American higher education, before an audience of hundreds of university leaders from around the world at the British Council's annual Going Global conference here Tuesday, he suggested that the issues might resonate in their countries as well. Wildavsky, a senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and co-author of Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation, talked about low graduation rates, a failure to focus on student learning and what he termed an "innovation deficit" across most of higher education in the United States. (He also highlighted examples of activities in which some educators are using new technology to innovate in significant ways.)

The critiques Wildavsky offered wouldn't surprise anyone who attends gatherings of academic leaders in the United States. But here it was striking that to some educators outside the United States, the agenda seemed foreign in more ways than one. It wasn't that they disagreed with his analysis of American higher education, but that they are truly in different places.

Narendra Jadhav, a member of India's national planning commission and former vice chancellor of the University of Pune, said of the completion issue, "We don't have that problem." He explained that when a country aspires to bring hundreds of millions of people who have had no access to higher education into higher education, it's hard to worry too much about graduation rates.

For many groups in India -- people who are poor, or live in remote rural areas, or are from minority groups -- less than 3 percent of those eligible ever go to a university, he said. "This is appalling." Jadhav said he agrees that completion matters, but that when countries have not yet addressed the access issue, the latter needs to come first.

Eric Thomas, vice chancellor of the University of Bristol, and president of Universities UK, was more focused on student learning in his remarks. He said he worries that too many discussions about higher education take place without the perspectives of students today. He said he wished these discussions would start with everyone trying to "remember what you were like at 21 and 22." He said universities need to "understand the people you are getting." That means recognizing their love of digital information, but also being realistic that they "are not the self-directed learners" who arrived at universities a generation ago.

Thomas argued that universities may be getting an unfair rap as not innovating. A medical faculty member before moving into administration, Thomas said that the medical education of today is "almost completely different" from that he experienced in the 1970s. And he said that his daughter's undergraduate education in classics had "no relation" to what a classics education would have looked like in the 1970s. Many kinds of higher education today, he said, are far more focused on problem-based learning, use technology in different ways, and cover very different subject matter as essential.

But even as higher education rushes to change -- and much of the talk here was about change -- Thomas cautioned against going too far. He noted a recent visit to Bologna, where he walked by the city's famous university, the oldest continuously operating institution of higher education.

He said that some parts of the operation probably aren't that different than they were 500 years ago. While some might see that as a lack of innovation, Thomas wondered about the idea of "conservation" in the genetic sense -- are there qualities to universities that are so essential that they survive not by chance, but because they are part of what makes the institution so successful?

As educators seek appropriate reforms, he said, "it's important that we don't throw the baby out with the bath water."


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