Higher education reform -- everyone's doing it.

 

I have worked recently in countries as diverse as Lithuania, Azerbaijan and Syria, all of which see the need for improvement in their higher education systems. The problem is that reform challenges vested interests. And so resistance to reform often seemed like conservatism, but in fact it is vested interests reluctant to have their powers and privileges undermined. Nevertheless, a realisation that other countries are making reforms can be a spur to reforming within a country, especially where there are reform minded people in positions of power who see the need.

 

Given the widespread realisation that the development of knowledge economies requires strong universities, finance ministries all over the world appear surprisingly reluctant to provide the resources needed to create strong universities, and tend to see higher education as a cost rather than an investment. I have seen this in surprising places, for example the UAE -- one of the richest countries in the world -- where the finance ministry has been fighting a rearguard action against providing sufficient resources to its federal universities to enable them to function at international levels . And Azerbaijan, where there is a boom economy fuelled by oil, but which devotes one of the lowest proportions of its GDP in the world to University education, and where, because numbers are constrained, private investment is relatively low as well. Yet not only does the Finance Ministry resist increasing public investment, but there are barriers to increased private provision as well.

 

We see the same phenomenon now in the UK, where the government has announced 25% or more in cuts in public expenditure across the board, without any reprieve so far for education in general or higher education in particular. The argument that higher education expenditure is an investment cuts no ice -- the answer is that the cupboard is bare and that there is no cash for investment for the future because the present is so pressing; and so we have to consume our seedcorn and hope for the best. This is in sad contrast with some other countries -- like Ireland where the economic hard times are much more severe than in the UK -- and yet where higher education expenditure continues to expand in the knowledge that severe damage will be done in the long term if investment is not increased. In those countries the long-term is not being sacrificed to the short.

 

Restrained investment in higher education will have a number of consequences, all of them unpalatable. It may lead to disappointment for increasing numbers of aspiring students. That will be politically difficult. But the alternative would be to allow (or indeed for political reasons to insist on) more students to be recruited without more funding, so risking lasting damage to the quality of education.

 

There is a third possible response to constraints on public funding, which is to require students to pay more -- to introduce or to raise tuition fees. For some countries that will be an obvious approach. But for countries like England that already have a relatively high level of student fee, the benefits of that approach are not so readily available, and there is a risk of increasing fees to the point where they begin to have a deterrent effect on participation, particularly participation by poor students (of which there is no sign of their having done in the past).

 

There is nothing like a financial crisis for spurring reform, but the wrong reforms, introduced for the wrong reasons?  That's the danger.

 

Bahram Bekhradnia
Director
Higher Education Policy Institute