GLOBAL: Higher education in a world changed utterly

Universities are at the sharp end of the global financial crisis, often facing draconian budget cuts and demands from governments to provide the workforce that will drive the route out of recession. Next month the OECD's programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education holds its general conference in Paris, titled Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing more with less. Here, the OECD's Richard Yelland discusses the thinking behind the conference and the issues likely to frame the discussions.

Yelland is head of the Education Management and Infrastructure Division in the Directorate for Education at the OECD, in which the Institutional Management in Higher Education programme is located. The IMHE provides strategic analysis and advice on institutional leadership, management, research and innovation in a global knowledge economy, and on reform and governance in higher education.

University World News is a media partner to the IMHE general conference.

UWN: The title of your forthcoming conference implies that the global higher education community is experiencing, or will shortly experience, a dramatic shift in its circumstances. Is it possible to give an order of magnitude for the impact on higher education across OECD countries over the next year or two?

Yelland: Higher education in OECD countries has been through 60 years of expansion and change as populations have grown and economies have become wealthier. Globalisation, demographic change and technological development are issues which constantly oblige us to review policy and practice, but the financial crisis is forcing us to look at issues of quality, equity and efficiency in a new way.

UWN: What are the options facing governments and institutional heads in an environment of fiscal rigour and probable or actual severe cuts in public spending?

Yelland: Governments have to ensure that expenditure is directed where it is most needed, and that the incentives in the system encourage the response that they want. Institutions have to review their activities, and focus on their core business and on doing that well.

UWN: Is there an argument that higher education is an area for discretionary spending where the responsibility for making good shortfalls rests with individual beneficiaries (ie graduates)? Or is there an economic argument for the state assuming responsibility for maintaining spending on higher education when the propensity of would-be beneficiaries (ie students) to spend their own money on education is reduced as family budgets are squeezed?

Yelland: Innovation is a key driver of economic growth - and innovation requires highly-educated individuals as well as investment in research. Public spending on higher education is essential if growth and innovation are to be stimulated, and needs to be maintained as far as possible.

There is also a strong economic and social argument for cost-sharing. Higher education is never free, and public spending is paid for by tax-payers. The argument for cost-sharing is based on the equitable apportionment of costs in relation to benefits.

Graduates tend to have better and more satisfying jobs, to earn more money, and to be more healthy and live longer than non-graduates. They will pay more in tax but there is a strong argument for asking them to contribute directly to the cost of their education.

And irrespective of where the money is coming from, education institutions have a responsibility to use it as efficiently as possible. The current situation doesn't change that argument; it just makes it more urgent.

Some institutions and some systems have made a lot of progress in trying to understand their costs and to control them, but there is an awfully long way to go. Not-for-profit universities are not businesses in the conventional sense, but they certainly have to be business-like in the way they work.

UWN: Is it now time for those countries that have failed to embrace cost-sharing to do so?

Yelland: It has been time for a number of years

UWN: Is it feasible to introduce or to increase cost-sharing in a time of economic weakness, or is it better to await the recovery and act at a time of greater economic strength?

Yelland: It is certainly feasible to increase costs to students at difficult times - many US states and institutions have done so. Decisions have to be discussed and communicated, and safeguards put in place to protect the most vulnerable.

UWN: Does the likelihood of drastically diminished resources inevitably mean that governments and institutions must choose between erosion of quality of teaching, maintenance of the teaching environment, or reduced access?

Yelland: I would hope not. Finding a solution to that conundrum is what our conference is about. The answer may lie in greater productivity, utilising more effectively some of the technological advances we have made in recent years; and it may lie in some rationalisation of provision.

One thing we do need to do urgently is to get a much clearer understanding of what we mean by quality teaching and how we measure it, which is where the OECD's AHELO [Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes] initiative has such potential.

UWN: Is there still fat to be cut from universities and from higher education systems without impacting on the delivery of quality teaching and research?

Yelland: Some of our institutions need to work out a bit more. It's a myth that you can turn fat into muscle, but you can certainly lose weight and improve your strength at the same time.

UWN: That implies that this fitness regime will preserve and even improve the quality of the education delivered. What indications are there that students will not be disadvantaged as cuts bite and institutions strive to achieve more with less?

Yelland: We're not starting from scratch. Reforms in a number of countries in recent years have improved governance, increased efficiency and enhanced quality. Many are described in the 2008 report Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society. An important part of our role at OECD is to analyse such developments and to share ideas about how they are working.

UWN: Higher education is a globalised activity but there appears to be a significant variation across the OECD countries in the value attached to higher education and research as mechanisms for driving the economic recovery. Is there any chance that higher education will be able to deliver for the industrialised world when countries are pulling in opposing directions with widely differing views on whether higher education and research should be at the forefront of the recovery effort or not?

Yelland: I don't accept your premise. Higher education (as opposed to research) is still largely governed nationally, and indeed there is considerable diversity within countries. However we are seeing some convergence, in practice, as well as in the importance that OECD countries attach to human capital and innovation. This process will continue.

UWN: To what extent does focusing on vocationally-relevant subjects and applied research at the expense of more academic subjects and blue-skies research serve the longer term interests of society?

Yelland: Society does not have the luxury of either/or in this case. Both theory and practice are needed, and they feed on each other. The development of antibiotics needed both Fleming's discovery and Florey's development of its application.

UWN: Is it possible to predict the impact of the global economic crisis on international student mobility?

Yelland: The main countries that supply international students have both significant economic growth and large-scale potential demand, and I see no reason to think that the numbers looking for higher education will drop off for financial reasons. I would be more concerned about reputation and the need to demonstrate quality.

UWN: How far should institutions look to the international student market to make up shortfalls in their domestic revenue and recruitment?

Yelland: That is really a decision for them.

UWN: Is a retraction of higher education, with fewer universities, fewer students and fewer academics likely and/or desirable?

Yelland: I don't think there are going to be fewer students - quite the contrary in fact. But there could well be fewer institutions, as some of the smaller ones merge. A rationalisation of the institutional landscape is gathering pace.

UWN: What contribution do you hope the conference will make to systems' and institutions' ability to weather the economic storm?

Yelland: I expect participants to learn from each other, not only from the formal presentations and discussions, but also from the informal talks over coffee. If every university takes back one good idea that they can use then I'll be satisfied. And I hope this will not just be a conference for developed countries. We have many participants coming from beyond the OECD and I hope that they too will learn much.

Read more about the AHELO programme here

Conference details here