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OECD: Conference shies away from long-term solutions

Many of the solutions proposed by participants in the OECD's Institutional Management in Higher Education conference were short term, palliative measures when the deepest crisis in higher education funding since the Second World War means the sector is in need of a kind of Marshall Plan to save it.

The 2010 conference was organised to achieve two main objectives. The first was to encourage stakeholders in higher education to vigorously pursue teaching and research activities with dwindling financial resources - or 'doing more with less', the slogan of the conference. The second was to create other avenues to supplement the shortfall of funds that traditionally come from the state, such as endowments, stocks and donations from philanthropic organisations.

However, most participants put forward short-term measures to keep their institutions afloat.

Popular in Europe and North America is the drive to recruit foreign students. In the market-oriented economies of the West, higher education institutions that welcome these students benefit financially from the tuition and boarding fees they pay.

Angel Calderon of RMIT University in Australia, in his paper 'Emerging Countries for Student Recruitment in Tertiary Education', stated that around 2.8 million foreign students were receiving higher education abroad.

At the same time, more institutions are operating across national boundaries. Qian Tang, Unesco's newly-appointed assistant director-general for education, warned that cross-border higher education could be subject to abuse if it was not properly regulated, implying that a strong dose of mercantilism may be at play on the part of some of the institutions involved.

Another palliative aimed at 'doing more with less' was the classic one - cutting back some administrative and academic operations.

In his paper 'Leading in Challenging Times', Robin Middlehurst, professor of higher education at Kingston University in the UK, offered an explanation of how higher education authorities adapt to shortages of funds.

He coined three terms to describe these measures: 'reactive' (reduce travel, pay freezes, hiring freezes), 'adaptive' (outsourcing, combining units for greater efficiency), and 'generative', that is, anticipate the future and engage with stakeholders including government to build new financial frameworks.

A closer look at some of these palliative measures shows that they are simply aimed at slowing down teaching and research activities.

According to Ingjaldur Hannibalsson, dean of the School of Business at the University of Iceland, plans to merge universities in the country are "for greater efficiency". In other words, since the state cannot provide much-needed funds, universities have to merge to save on administrative and other costs.

From Denmark, Gitte Duemose Hansen and Hanna Harmesen presented a joint paper titled 'Creating a Common Market at the University of Copenhagen'. In 2007 the University of Copenhagen merged with other universities and had to "develop a new institutional strategy aligned with the university post-merger", they said.

To prevent a decline in teaching and research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US is considering charging for currently open-access educational materials. Dwindling financial resources is the reason for the possible commercialisation of some online lectures and class notes. Lori Breslow, head of MIT's e-learning facilitates, explained that it was becoming difficult for the institution to find other means to protect its revenue base.

These 'doing more with less' solutions cannot resolve the financial difficulties faced by higher education institutions.

In one interesting interactive session, to debate a paper on building sustainable higher education systems under short-term funding constraints, a participant pointed out that many conference papers had underlined that higher education was facing its most severe financial crisis since the end of the Second World War.

One effective response could be a kind of Marshall Plan under which multinational companies contributed a percentage of their profits to bail out higher education institutions, the participant suggested. Since oil and gas companies, banks and weapons corporations were among the greatest beneficiaries of graduates, they should resuscitate the goose that lays the golden egg.

Many of the panellists nodded their heads, but were speechless.
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