Higher education for a changing world

Director, OECD Education Directorate

Achieving and sustaining quality in higher education is a tough challenge. A new stakeholder contract may be needed, and better performance measures would help light the way forward.

Higher education is attracting unprecedented public attention across the OECD. In Germany a competition to create universities of excellence is fuelling debate; in France discussions continue about struggling mainstream universities versus more well-endowed grandes écoles; in the UK there is a debate about education as a public good versus faculties as market-oriented enterprises; and in the US public focus continues on accessibility, competition and costs.

The list goes on. These concerns are to be expected since knowledge is so important to our economies. They also reflect the globalised nature of tertiary education, which in some countries, particularly in Europe, is in something of a quandary. Top US universities, though expensive in terms of fees, draw top talent and appear to outshine many leading European ones. Why is this?

Historical influences, institutional developments, the role of education in society, past and current attitudes to funding, quality and access: when it comes to measuring quality, relevance and impact of universities, we simply need more evidence. Institutions of higher education everywhere are increasingly encouraged—if not obliged–to draw a higher proportion of their resources from non-state funds. Just as the health system and pension funds can no longer be solely funded with public money, university “consumers” will increasingly be asked for a financial contribution.

There is a paradox: on the one hand governments and the public request public universities to provide greater access, improved quality and to cut costs. On the other hand, public funding is reduced. In some countries higher education may as a consequence become scarcer, and access more limited. Some change, whether in approach or structure, seems inevitable.

Regional drivers

Education reform is far more than just about funding or turning educational institutions into businesses. It is about promoting a new social contract involving all stakeholders, beyond governments, teachers and students. The terms of the social contract which has underpinned these institutions until now–mainly public finance based mainly on taxation–are changing. Also, governments have to make sure the challenges are met quickly, since the knowledge economy relies heavily on higher education for its raw material of human capital.

It is important to consider higher education in a regional as well as a global context. The higher education and research institutes made their entry into regional policy in the 1980s, when entrepreneurship became central to local development. There were new incentives to create closer ties between knowledge institutions and trade and industry, led by the likes of Silicon Valley in California, Route 128 in Boston and other high technology centres. The idea of growth centres, including a university or a university-affiliated research institute, has conquered the world from Tokyo to Paris and Helsinki to Munich.

Regions and their universities have drawn new “road maps” towards dynamic local forces capable of competing in a global economy and delivering social well-being. Such forces require a stable infrastructure, including best-performance schools and universities, research laboratories and a networked technological infrastructure. As Microsoft’s Bill Gates puts it, cutting-edge companies now base their location decisions on the availability of talent pools and a culture for innovation, rather than tax policy.

This is not just theory and it is not just happening in the US. Consider Finland, for instance. Between 1990 and 2000 the Finns doubled their higher education enrolments. The decision to do so was taken when the Finnish economy had lurched into a long and deep recession following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But rather than doubling the size of the existing rather rigid university system, they decided to create a new one based on a regional infrastructure. This led to the creation of a polytechnic system, aimed at upgrading vocationally-oriented education and catering for changing local needs, including in the labour market. Whether Finland’s economic resurgence, including in employment, is due to these innovations in education is an open question.

Nor has regionalisation solved all the problems: Finland still faces the prospect of a long-term decline in student numbers, and as a consequence, will soon begin consolidating a number of institutions. The OECD is acting as advisor on this question.

Testing performance

Clearly, adequate funding is a key element in assuring the quality of any higher education institution. But while much emphasis has been placed on the evaluation and quality assessment of research, little attention has been given to the quality of teaching at higher education institutions, or indeed to how they serve regional requirements. Measuring these contributions may require different approaches, but the choices are unclear. We need to build a better understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the different ways to evaluate quality.

An issue we should be careful about is the use of league tables. One of the major problems with rankings, especially where they cover whole institutions rather than individual faculties or disciplines, is that they compress everything into a single indicator that fails to capture the diverse meaning and objective of quality. In other words, simplistic, narrowly-defined, quantitative assessments of quality can actually harm the diverse missions of higher education.

For accountability, certain elements are worth measuring in relation to particular disciplines or courses: number of graduates, duration of studies, costs per student, etc. But do these measures help set overall strategies in higher education? Measuring quality should go beyond quantitative measures of cost, for instance.

To assess regional involvement, quite different metrics are required. We are conducting a major study of the precise ways institutions of higher education support economic, social and cultural development across the OECD. It is a challenging exercise.

So far as teaching in higher education is concerned, a measure of student competencies would probably be the most credible tool, rather as the OECD has done with PISA for secondary education. However, this would be expensive and difficult to carry out. Even if such a measure were made available, it would have to be supplemented by ways of determining whether better results reflected the quality teaching or, say, a more advantaged student intake. After all, do some US colleges shine because of their teaching or because they only admit high calibre students in the first place? Do some old-fashioned European universities suffer because they take on too many students?

This raises the problem of how to compare like with like. Different countries have different traditions, and the status of universities and other institutions varies from place to place. For instance, for engineering, do we compare, say, Stanford with a mainstream French university, or with a specialised school such as the Ponts et Chaussées? Are these schools producing to new employment demands? Can French, German or other European universities continue to supply skills to the likes of Siemens or Airbus, or indeed, to emerging European knowledge-based industries?

Such questions need to be cleared up. The OECD’s tertiary reviews, regulatory reform reports on education and innovative work on university futures offer some insights, but also reveal gaps in measurements for comparing countries. A productive route would be to look at consumer judgements about the perceived quality of teaching. By consumers, I mean mainly students, though also parents and future employers.

There are some good examples to examine, such as the German Centre for Higher Education Development’s online tool, which aims to dispense with all-institution ranking of data by comparing single disciplines in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. As it is interactive, “client” students can rank institutions according to their needs. A study on the methods used in gathering such consumer information across the OECD would be quite straightforward to set up, and the OECD could achieve quite a lot with a relatively modest investment.

OECD education ministers will meet in Athens on 27-28 June. The question of achieving and sustaining quality in higher education will feature highly on the agenda. India, China, Russia, Chile and other non-members will also be represented. Such deep interest from around the world is a sign of how important higher education is for us all. Together we must meet the challenge of attaining the quality we need and our children deserve.

©OECD Observer No 255, May 2006

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