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Two Cheers for Higher Education: lessons for the UK?

13 Feb 2019 | David Williams Anticipating how the UK’s devolved systems of higher education might evolve brings the temptation to look for clues in the systems of tertiary education found in other countries.

Anticipating how the UK’s devolved systems of higher education might evolve brings the temptation to look for clues in the systems of tertiary education found in other countries. How institutions in the United States (US) have responded to new challenges is examined in Steven Brint’s new book, Two Cheers for Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2019), subtitled Why American Universities Are Stronger Than Ever - and How to Meet the Challenges They Face.

Brint, a professor of sociology and public policy at the University of California, considers the recent challenges faced by the US system of higher education and the response of institutions. In offering an assessment Brint accepts there are concerns about rising student debt, erosion of state funding, falling enrolments in the humanities and the seemingly endless expansion of adjunct faculty. He nevertheless rejects the criticisms of those who have highlighted the food insecurity of many college students. (See, for example, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Paying the Price: College costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream)

While acknowledging many of these criticisms, Brint suggests they miss the big picture. Despite very real problems, he sees American universities becoming financially and intellectually stronger, and occupying an internationally dominant position. This is due to institutions responding to three growth logics; intellectual advance, market logic (ie. working with industry on new technologies) and social inclusion, in an interconnected and flexible way.

Intellectual advance describes the centrality of academic departments and the status of peer-reviewed research. The determination of faculty members to maintain the system of ‘academic professionalism’ is strongly supported. Market logic describes how institutions work with industry on new technologies, and how they have become more porous institutions over time. Finally, higher education is the best means of social inclusion, enabling the upward mobility of the disadvantaged.

The two fundamental objectives of higher education are the expansion of the knowledge and the development of students’ cognitive capacities and their knowledge of subject matter. Two dynamic factors have impacted these objectives. These are use of university research to advance economic developments through the invention of new technologies and use of higher education as an instrument of social inclusion. Different institutions have concentrated on each. The development of new technologies has been centered on research universities, while comprehensive universities, those emphasing teaching over research, have carried the primary responsibility for expanding social inclusion.

The structure of the US higher education system is hierarchical, with the tiering of institutions running from community colleges, regional comprehensives, state flagship universities and private liberal arts colleges. The private liberal arts colleges and the nation’s top research universities form the peak of the system. Policy changes and actions have differential impacts according to where an institution sits within the US system: the stratification is ever-present.

While the volume of research output has increased, the hierarchy of top research institutions shows little sign of changing over time. There is limited institutional mobility in the top-tier of research rankings. ‘The top three dozen research institutions seemed to be in a class of their own, and other research institutions struggle to keep up.’ More generally, the top research institutions and liberal arts colleges are ‘in no danger from those who hope to disrupt the system; they are strong enough to weather any conceivable threat.’ This implies that it is the weaker and less well-endowed institutions who are most threatened by discontinuities in public policy.

In a society with few other avenues for social mobility, higher education is the path that leads many young people out of economic marginality. An important reason for the strong demand for higher education in the US is that the market for high school (secondary) jobs has very nearly collapsed. College is close to a necessity to secure stable well-paid employment in the minds of most Americans.

Brint argues ‘the most important power held by colleges and universities is their monopoly over accrediting higher education credentials’. These enable graduates access to the better-paying jobs in America. While the idea of ‘college for all’ suggests the opportunity is available to everyone, this breaks down when examining the nature of the institutions many attend and the failure to complete and gain a credential. Drop-out rates are much higher in the US than in the UK and are concentrated amongst particular social groups and in the institutions they typically attend. Further, ‘the institutions that are most accessible (community colleges) provide the smallest boost to a student’s life chances.’

The expansion of student numbers strongly mirrors the stratification of the American higher education system. While all institutions have expanded, the greatest growth over the last decade has been in two-year community and for-profit colleges. The development is described as ‘open access with radical stratification’. This highlights the tension between ‘high-status tracks and broader access to education credentials.’ Despite the overall expansion of the system, higher-status institutions have expanded the least. They have sought to protect their position and the value of the degrees they award. The stratification of the system extends into the labour market as evidenced by one banker suggesting when it comes to selecting graduates, ‘you are basically hiring yourself. This is not an objective process.’

Is the leadership and governance of institutions down to managerial or dual control? Dual control (or shared governance) means ‘faculty should have the primary responsibility for educational policy’. This centres on a more collegial form of academic governance, as opposed to a corporate pattern of governance. Brint is unable to conclusively prove that a corporate pattern of governance is in the ascendency, although in some types of institution dual control is found to be more likely.

Differences in the views of the two main political parties and hence the financial support for higher education in the US have been reflected in changes at federal and state level. Since the financial crisis of 2008 state funding of higher education has witnessed a falling trajectory with only a partial restoration in more recent years. As a result, institutions have needed to find replacement funding and cut cost. Typically the result has been significant increases in tuition fees, increased class sizes and the use of more adjunct faculty (individuals hired on teaching only, and often part-time, contracts). Increasing numbers of adjunct faculty have resulted in many institutions becoming less reliant on permanent tenured staff.

Brint’s central thesis is that despite criticisms of the US higher education system, the way it has responded to recent challenges has been highly positive. The system has adapted and become stronger, and the reputation and standing of the elite institutions remains high. Equally, progress has been made on social inclusion. However, when the lens of an individual is adopted, judgements about the US system are arguably more balanced. The stratification of the system suggests that an individual’s life chances remain highly correlated with their position at birth. Similarly, lower-tier institutions have found it more difficult to accommodate policy changes and their resulting actions have impacted some of those in greatest need.

While elite institution have been the main beneficiaries of increased federal research funding, and have responded in a positive way, not all institutions have enjoyed a comfortable ride. Teaching institutions dependent on state funding have, in many instances, been forced to make difficult choices. There has been no silver bullet to accommodate the policy changes without causing adverse impacts. Thus a more nuanced picture emerges, highlighting the role of public funding in supporting and influencing the direction of the US higher education system. The dependence, but also the vulnerability, of much of the system on public funding decisions needs to be acknowledged. There is no easy way of reducing the public funding of a mass higher education system without causing dislocation.

While it is difficult to deny the achievements of the US higher education system in terms of research and innovation, it is equally difficult to avoid the conclusion that other aspects of the system point towards the need to make a more balanced assessment. Such an assessment prompts the question of how to build a holistic and fair system of higher education able to support and sustain the needs of multiple stakeholders.

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