Hardly a day passes when we don’t read about poor performance in higher education. This is true for those who follow the international scene and it’s true for those who follow mostly the US or virtually any other single country. The nearly relentless message is that we are not doing well in higher education. Modified, the message is at least that we are not doing nearly well enough.
But compared to what? That should be an obvious and omnipresent question. Yet it is often ignored or left vague and inexplicit. Alongside many specific and valid gauges, the too common comparison is really to desires or goals. We should be “there” but we are still “here.” We should be at performance indicator or benchmark x but we are at y. “Report Cards” usually show “poor” performance. Even further, it is common to refer to higher education in crisis. Again, compared to what? Primary and secondary education, health care, higher education somewhere else, higher education ten years ago? How long or often can something be in “crisis” without just representing a reality, however lamentable?
There is of course nothing inherently wrong with desires and aspirations. They can indeed have positive effects--reminding us or our values, even our dreams, or exhorting us to larger and better efforts. A particularly good rationale in international comparison, is spurring via embarrassment: “our higher education system is on a level with Ghana’s?”
But invidious comparisons to unrealistic standards can also have negative effects. The economist Albert Hirschman repeatedly pointed to such effects and failure syndromes. Hopes, expectations, and goals that are dashed again and again can lead to cynicism and a feeling that effort is worthless.
Politics and the policy process have dynamics that often push to unrealistic goals: It is a way to “be for” grand things, sometimes even without much invested effort or resources. Common in UNESCO, World Bank, and many other international documents and projects is comparison of the developing country or region in question to developed countries. “See how far country x trails Western Europe in higher education access or expenditure” when more pertinent is comparison of access or expenditure to that of a country at a similar economic level (not that such comparisons are non-existent). Similarly, comparison to invented and declared standards can have pernicious effects. Leading work on numeracy in Latin America shows on metric after metric that country x or the region overall is way behind. Proliferating higher education accreditation bodies worldwide (which have vital roles to play) are demonstrably vulnerable to the temptation to set requirements at levels of what they think should be. Also tempting are metrics that are inappropriately applied to certain kinds of institutions (non-university, technological, private) even if those metrics are appropriate for universities of high standing.
Comparisons are essential to good higher education study. They can also serve useful purposes in higher education policy. But many prominent and repeated comparisons are either pointless or worse.