The OECD's general conference, Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing more with less, identified one of the great challenges of expanding university systems: can higher education provide value while admitting more students and cutting back on spending in a recessionary climate? The problem is that no one knows how to measure the 'value' of higher education.
"We must identify ways to achieve higher quality and better outcomes at a time of increased demand and declining resources," said OECD conference convener Richard Yelland in his opening speech on 13 September.
Johan Roos, president of the Copenhagen Business School, told the conference in Paris: "The best of all worlds is to combine low delivery costs with very high value." But this is extremely tricky, he acknowledged.
In Denmark the government is assessing value by using output-oriented numbers such as drop-out rates, employment rates and so on. "But these are very primitive outcomes," he admitted.
Presenting the Education at a Glance 2010 report in London earlier in September, the OECD's Andreas Schleicher acknowledged: "One thing we completely lack in higher education is any measure of quality. We know how much it costs but have no idea of its outcomes except its economic impact. It does not tell you if the degree is really worth it."
In Europe quality has always been a concern. Selective systems in Northern Europe pointed to the crowded lecture halls of mass university systems in Southern Europe. However, as Scandinavian countries began to reach high levels of cohorts going to university, approaching 70% in Finland for example, it became clear that massification and quality were not mutually exclusive.
Australia, less affected by the recession than many other countries, is moving towards a so-called demand-led or mass system. From 2012 universities may enrol as many students as they wish. But David Hazelhurst of Australia's Department of Education admitted at the conference: "The question of quality will remain a significant one."
Meanwhile, "globalisation and global rankings combined with the effects of the global financial crisis have re-energised the emphasis on and importance of value for money criteria," said Ellen Hazelkorn of the Dublin Institute of Technology.
"The perceived quality of the higher education system is a key factor in helping to attract inward investment [to Ireland]," said Hazelkorn in a paper presented at the conference.
In Latin America, governments have begun to worry about the quality of their degrees as international competitiveness becomes more of an issue in a globalised world.
"The situation in Latin America is very different. It is not about doing more with less, but much more with more. The starting point is very low," said Argentina's Daniel Samoilovich, director of the Paris-based Euro-Latin American Forum for Knowledge-based Regional Development.
Now that multinational corporations "depend heavily on earnings in Latin America", quality higher education has become a priority in the region, he said.
And this is not just true of Latin America.
Eduardo Ochoa, the Barack Obama administration's assistant secretary at the Office of Postsecondary Education, pointed out that quality was an issue for any government that bankrolled universities or student loans.
"If you look at the size of it [the US government's student loans book] it would be the seventh largest bank in the US," said Ochoa. "Clearly government has an interest in making sure the money is well invested."
Expansion of participation "has created some tensions as we shift from students going for transformation [through education] to purchasing a service."
The quality debate in the US has been sparked by ever-rising tuition fees. A mechanism to assess how well vocational programmes prepare graduates for jobs is being drawn up.
Doug Lederman, co-editor of the US-based online newspaper Inside Higher Ed, noted while chairing a conference session: "For the first time I see some kind of federal measure of what students pay compared to outcome."
But the problem of what represents value still remains.
"Proxies of higher education quality exist but none are perfect," said Diane Lalancette of the OECD's directorate of education, which is currently examining ways to assess quality in engineering and economics education under its Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) initiative.
Proxies can include university rankings, both national and global, some based on peer reviews and often biased towards research. Or labour market outcomes such as the percentage of students in jobs three to six months after graduation, which take little account of underemployment or employment in non-graduate jobs.
Some attempts have been made to assess value at the OECD, such as whether graduates' lifetime earnings significantly outweigh the cost of a degree, or whether a degree leads to better, more respected and more fulfilling jobs.
But Barbara Ischinger, the OECD's Director of Education, acknowledged that very little was understood about the quality of degrees. "We still know very little about what students have learned in their time at university or college," she told the conference.
Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Washington DC-based Institute for Higher Education Policy, said in an OECD blogpost: "The need to 'count' has become a worldwide phenomenon in education. We count the number of degrees conferred. We count the number of faculty with doctorate degrees, we count the number of articles published in specific types of journals and on and on.
"But none of these counts truly equates with quality. None of these counts are a true measure of students' success. None of these counts ensure global competencies and none of these counts guarantee a competitive workforce."
For example, China may be overtaking advanced countries in the number of citations in certain subjects or number of PhDs, or India may be turning out more engineers than other countries. But the integrity of some Chinese research and the quality of many Indian engineering degrees has been questioned.
Chair of the European Students' Union Bert Vandenkendelaere said that from a student perspective 'quality teaching' would reduce the number of drop-outs from courses.
"There is no set definition of quality," yet even in a recession "governments are spending a lot of money on how to assess quality," said Vandenkendelaere.
"Perhaps they should just ask the students."
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