Universities must measure student learning, not numbers

It is high time universities started to measure more what they achieve in student learning, rather than in enrolments, the Presidents’ Forum of the Worldwide Universities Network has been told in Brussels.

The former president of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, Professor Jo Ritzen, referenced an American study in 2011 which found that many United States university and college students did not learn much at all. Some 45% of students made few gains in the first two years; 36% did the same over their entire four years of study.

The former Dutch education minister told the Brussels-staged forum entitled “Open Doors: European opportunities in research and education” that universities could achieve quality learning goals, but they needed financing and autonomy to do it.

Ritzen stressed a direct relationship between funding and competences: increased funding results in greater research productivity. This boosts national economies through delivering new public and private knowledge.

He laid equal emphasis on “creating consistency between goals and means – that is, greater autonomy for universities. We need managerial, staffing and policy autonomy while at the same time being subject to quality control,” Ritzen said, regretting that many universities are still under the thumbs of national education ministers.

An international approach

In addition to the Worldwide Universities Network’s European Union universities, Canada, Ghana, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and South Africa were represented at the meeting.

Claire Morel, the European Commission’s director of international cooperation for education and youth, predicted that between 2020 and 2030 there would be a 300% increase in the student population globally, that it would grow from 99 million to 414 million of whom seven million students would be internationally mobile.

Of that figure, some 33% would originate in south and east Asia and the Pacific, she said. “Although the European Union is currently the preferred destination of mobile students, over the same period the number of European-born students will diminish sharply.”

In this context, she spoke of the need for much greater credit mobility – mutual recognition of qualifications – not least because such mobility helps to avoid brain drain.

The conference opened with a strong pitch from Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the European Research Council or ERC, established only nine years ago but already integral to the continent’s educational mission, with a current budget of €1.7 billion (US$1.9 billion).

He underlined the importance of researcher mobility. “The ERC is open to researchers from anywhere in the world because ERC grantees are required to spend only 50% of their time in Europe; dual affiliations are possible. Team members can also be based outside Europe.”

Need to be agile

On a more philosophical level Bourguignon said the public, and too often policy-makers, don’t understand how science actually develops: “Many believe that, if we put enough resources into a problem, we can solve it.”

That was wrong – he instanced the well-funded and successful Manhattan and Apollo projects in the last century and the equally well-financed current ‘war on cancer’ which was launched 50 years ago and still there is only a limited understanding of abnormal cell proliferation.

“We must remember that the most important scientific results of all often come about when scientists are not looking to solve any particular technological problem.

"Sometimes an unexpected discovery or new approach or theory appears that changes the framework completely.” For example, the key CRISPR process in genetic engineering came from the study of bacteria.

Professor Ernest Aryeetey, the University of Ghana’s vice-chancellor, spoke of the growing recognition by African governments of the value of generating research locally and, by working in groups, to take advantage of joint research initiatives.

In conclusion Sir Alan Langlands, vice-chancellor of Leeds University in the United Kingdom, challenged delegates to keep their eyes on the ball when defining research priorities. For instance, all the predictions on agriculture and climate change made in 2000 have been wrong – so are global research challenges the right ones today?

“On the whole, I think we’re agile enough but we’re dealing with a dynamic situation,” he cautioned.