US: Reinventing Higher Education

Reinventing Higher Education: The promise of innovation is a highly readable and important collection of essays edited by Ben Wildavsky, Andrew P Kelly and Kevin Carey. The book reads as a call to arms to the US higher education system to reform itself to remain what they unashamedly describe as the "best higher education system in the world".

The book is a series of interconnected chapters by leading experts that outline and provide solutions to the problems facing US higher education as it grapples with issues that will be familiar to international readers - balancing the competing pressures of expanding access, improving quality and reducing costs in a context of intensifying global competition, the challenges posed by new technologies and the introduction of severe funding reductions in public higher education.

Despite its title, the book has a relatively narrow focus on the mass of US undergraduate education that takes place outside a core of 'elite' research institutions. The authors recognise that elite institutions are unlikely to change, and that there is probably no need to interfere with a model that works, albeit for a relatively small and privileged group of students.

Instead, the book focuses on the vast majority of institutions and students who are likely to be impacted the most by the changing context and for whom the need to acquire higher-level skills become increasingly intense. The authors lament that innovation, when it occurs, is relatively small-scale, slow and lacks the transformative power to effect real system change.

The authors also highlight a number of structural issues which occur as constant themes: public funding based on enrolments rather than outcomes; the changing nature of faculty employment; the need to improve faculty productivity; utilising opportunities to harness new teaching approaches and technologies to develop a more student-centred learning approach; and overcoming a "chronic" cultural resistance to change throughout the system.

In Chapter 1 Dominic Brewer and William Tierney provide a stark overview of the imperative for change in undergraduate higher education. They highlight outdated and highly standardised approaches to teaching and learning, the lack of focus brought about by multiple complex missions, public subsidies that focus on enrolments rather than outcomes, and sector stakeholders such as accreditation agencies, representative agencies and policy-makers that help preserve the status quo through inflexible regulation and financial disincentives for innovative practice.

In Chapter 2 Jon Marcus reaffirms the inherent conservative nature of the higher education system through a detailed discussion of the history of US higher education and suggests that the system does not have the capacity to reform itself. Rather, it will only re-imagine itself in the face of severe external pressures or the entrance of new providers that are not burdened with traditional missions and structures (he highlights Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania as a beacon of such innovation).

In Chapter 3 William Massy also recognises that new institutions are more open to innovation, but disagrees that traditional institutions (even those engaged in research) cannot increase faculty teaching productivity. He cites as an example the National Center for Academic Transformation, which has helped around 100 institutions to cut spending and improve student learning.

For Massy, there is a "moral imperative" to develop new organisational models and harness the power of ICT, and for institutions to focus on teaching as "job one".

In Chapter 4 economist Roland Ehrenberg describes the changing nature of the academic workforce in the US, particularly the diminishing proportion of tenure and tenure-track positions, and he suggests that the traditional model of US faculty as full-time and tenured or on tenure-track is now outdated.

However, he outlines emerging staffing patterns that provide an opportunity to develop new faculty career models if institutions are able to think strategically about how they plan to fulfill undergraduate education in the future - including effective use of non-tenure track staff. This involves re-assessing how programmes are taught as well as how they are staffed, and focusing more on student support.

Ehrenberg suggests that some of the student-centred learning approaches in use in for-profit institutions could help the traditional sector improve both student retention and outcomes.

Another economist, Paul Osterman, writes in Chapter 5 that "one of the great strengths of the US human capital system, compared to other nations, is that we offer multiple pathways to success", which draws attention to the challenge of taking a perspective across the whole US higher education system.

He casts his gaze over the often-neglected community college sector, which comprises 43% of all post-secondary enrolments and is even more under-resourced than other sectors. He outlines the deep problems with completions in the sector and the many challenges in effectively supporting non-traditional students, and contends that "forward progress requires additional resources that are aggressively linked to performance".

Osterman identifies examples of good practice in the sector, where community colleges focus on their core missions of preparing students to transfer to four-year institutions and developing vocational programmes that are close to employer needs, rather than taking on multiple missions.

Chapters 6 and 7 by Guilbert Hentschke and Peter Stokes outline how innovative practice - through the organisational models and practices of the for-profit sector and the increased adoption of online learning provision respectively - can provide examples of 'disruptive' innovation (using the concept developed by Clayton Christensen).

These approaches offer opportunities to deliver enrolment growth and reduce costs and, if appropriately regulated and evaluated, have the potential to add significant value to students through improved student learning and graduate outcomes. In particular, they suggest that such approaches have the most to offer non-traditional students and those seeking flexible and vocationally-orientated programmes.

However, the authors recognise that the radical elements of these approaches, such as 'unbundling' the learning process and adopting a more top-down and structured approach to curriculum design and teaching delivery, are unlikely to find favour with many institutional managers and faculty in more traditional institutions.

Surprisingly, both authors deal very quickly with of the criticisms of the for-profit sector (in terms of enrolment practices). In addition, Hentschke only provides a brief overview of the role of public-private partnerships in the delivery of undergraduate education, which can provide an important route to affecting change while retaining regulatory oversight.

The book ends with a detailed description by Kevin Carey of how one new public university, the University of Minnesota-Rochester (UMR), can act as a beacon on how to overcome the challenges and barriers described earlier in the book and "combine the best of both worlds - the kind of innovation happening in the public sector wedded to public values and purpose".

Minnesota-Rochester has discarded traditional organisational forms and practices, such as academic departments and lectures, taking a student-centred approach to the delivery of undergraduate education that embeds the creative use of technology, harnesses infrastructure from the wider state system, and effectively utilises evidence on effective student learning and achievement from the cognitive and behavioural sciences.

Carey provocatively contends that: "UMR is exclusively in the teaching and learning business. It turns out that if that's the only business you're in, you can do it very well for relatively small amounts of money."

Carey also provides a tantalising glimpse of research-engaged faculty at UMR who are able and motivated to teach, pursue academic research and conduct action-research to develop their own teaching practice for the benefit of the institution.

However, despite this inspiring end to the book the reader is left with the feeling that there are deep structural problems in US undergraduate higher education that are significant barriers to innovation and which are not going to disappear any time soon - particularly related to resourcing, accountability and institutional governance structures.

The examples of innovation are interesting and instructive but, as the editors recognise, upscaling such initiatives to the system level is a huge challenge, particularly given that public US higher education is primarily funded and accredited at the regional level, and because - as this book illustrates - the system is incredibly diverse.

There are also certain perspectives that are missing from the book, such as the student voice (both undergraduate and postgraduate) and the perceptions of faculty on educational innovation. The authors also don't reflect on how internationalisation, particularly in the form of cross-border education, could impact on the future development of US undergraduate education.

Indeed the book represents very much a 'view from within' the US by sector experts, which is both its great strength and a key weakness. It is important reading for those interested in understanding current debates on the future of US undergraduate education, but sadly doesn't include reference to international perspectives on the quality, access, cost conundrum and the difficulties of embedding innovation that are currently being addressed by institutions across the globe.

* Steve Woodfield is a senior researcher in the Higher Education Policy and Management Research Group at Kingston University in London. Reinventing Higher Education: The promise of innovation is published by Harvard Education Press. Price: $29.95.