Leading better conversations about the role of HE

Is higher education worth the cost, time and effort? Does it improve people, make them better citizens and create a more open and more scientific society? Does academic research serve as a catalyst for innovative change?

The mere fact that people are asking such questions points to a failure of the sector to communicate its value to the wider community.

Tons of research makes clear that higher education creates enormous value, but articulating this to people who don’t know or perhaps don’t care about higher education has always been difficult. New conversations are required that help people see how higher education can help them succeed.

Over the last few decades I have become convinced that transparency lies at the heart of any genuine advance. Improving transparency offers the jolt required to shift practice and reinforces the infrastructure leaders and others need to do their work.

It is surely time for tomorrow’s tertiary leaders to take charge of developing much more sophisticated, dynamic and relevant public reports of what is being done and achieved. Demystifying higher education will unleash productive futures which prevailing discourse or practice are unlikely to realise.

In my new book The Market for Learning I look at the pressures reshaping higher education, clarify the value and nature of transparency, examine emerging reporting platforms, review improvement opportunities for students, faculty, institutions and systems and forecast how to engineer important next steps.

One important issue is how we transparently measure the quality and productivity of academic work and university leadership and the outcomes for students. Many emerging initiatives have so far been confined largely to insiders. Universities and academics need to tell their stories and show their relevance.

The need for transparency

In actuarial terms, this seems a time of ‘uncertain improbabilities’ or ‘unusual uncertainties’. Like never before, the world needs higher education to help work through crises and create better futures. To engage better, institutions also need to address their own challenges and take leadership over communicating the value they create. Played well, there are great opportunities.

As higher education transforms, effective leadership of transparency will play an important role in making good with the future. Transparency is a young field and there are substantial opportunities for innovation.

Clearly, tertiary value is about more than money and goes to people, places and ideas. Tertiary institutions attract creative types, fund problem-solving, train professional workers, shepherd freedoms, set fashions, craft ideas, corral arguments, envelop inconsistencies and mediate subversion. But crucially, tertiary institutions intersect with the cities, towns and cultures around them.

For instance, imagine three big overlapping circles. One circle embraces dialogue about cities and spaces, another about tertiary education and the third about global culture. Each circle spawns its own communities and economies, creating knowledge, buildings and relationships.

Experts, artists, policy-makers and citizens alike spend a lifetime in any one of these worlds. But how best can we articulate their intersection? Or as a corny researcher might formulate: “What is left over after the world’s biggest regression equation has wrung all mathematical value into a formulaic answer?”

Much innovation, little transparency

Travelling around the world, it is not uncommon to hear countries and cities opine about how they might reform higher education and its contribution to public life. Thousands of specialist researchers and centres have focused energies in recent decades, hundreds of government ministers and university presidents have steered difficult reforms, students and staff have adapted to new stakes and perspectives, and consultants have minted careers advising executives of options.

It is surprising then that something perhaps as obvious as better transparency has remained such a fuzzy topic. Most existing work has been driven by high-level sectoral or institutional governance concerns and much work sits outside higher education. Many of the most interesting initiatives have been private or commercial in nature. More public conversation about higher education seems part of the solution.

Rather than talk about their own immaculate histories, institutions must engage people and communities in imagining their own future options.

Hamish Coates is a professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Email: His new book The Market for Learning offers a transparency roadmap by revealing the pressures reshaping higher education, clarifying the value and nature of transparency, examining emerging reporting platforms, reviewing improvement opportunities for students, faculty, institutions and systems, and forecasting how to engineer important next steps and providing a toolkit for universities and academics to tell their stories.