A few nights ago I was sitting at the dinner table with colleagues from Brazil trying to explain the US higher education system. You never realize how complicated US higher education is until you try to explain it to someone. What does it mean to be a private university in the US? It seems so different from private higher education elsewhere in the world! Aren’t all private universities only for the elite? Harvard University makes so much money—where does it go?
We finally got around to comparisons. As we are all scholars in the field of education, their inevitable question was, “Which school of education in Boston is the best?” I tried to explain that there was no easy answer, rankings aside. I clarified that each school of education offered different programs with very limited overlap. That although there was no formal coordination between universities, there was little sense in duplicating programs in close proximity to one another. I went on to explain that consortia allowed students to take classes at another area university if it wasn’t offered at their home institution and that these classes would be recognized and credited to their degree progress. That when I was studying in Amherst, I could choose from classes offered by five universities. Similarly, when I was a student in Boston, I could choose from five universities that form a different consortium. In both cases, the consortia included private and public universities. I looked across the table at blank stares.
This level of collaboration and mutual recognition of courses is unheard of in Brazil, or anywhere else in Latin America that matter. In fact, although I’m sure that consortia exist outside of the US I do not know where else. My dinner companions were amazed by the practicality of it.
In countries trying to develop higher education systems quickly, the idea of sharing resources seems a stunningly logical thing to do. But yet impossible in most countries. My friends insisted that this would never happen in Brazil. Perhaps in a few exceptional cases but a myriad of obstacles would make this impossible as general practice. I commented on the value to my education of studying outside my own department and being exposed to a broader spectrum of ideas at other institutions. They agreed unequivocally.
The conversation reminded me that we are too often limited by our prejudices and traditions to our own disadvantage. Reading daily about the struggles in so many countries to increase the number of universities and achieve adequate levels of quality quickly makes me wonder whether building consortia between old and new universities might not provide enormous mutual benefits as well as significant efficiencies. Is it really impossible? How do we break through the limitations that we place on ourselves that prevent us from crossing imaginary borders?