Mancunian Abroad

Last week I was part of a Leadership Foundation delegation visiting a number of US Colleges and Universities in Washington DC and I thought I might take this opportunity to share a couple of observations.

The delegation visited a range of institutions from George Washington University with one of the highest fee levels in the US, to the NOVA in North Virginia a Community College, via George Mason University, Laureate and Howard University.  The US system is often held up as an example of a truly market orientated system; a direction of travel for the UK HE in light of UK student number reforms.  But I am not sure this is true.

It is certainly a system of huge diversity in terms of numbers and types of institutions – 7,400 by some definitions – each with a different mission and funding mix.  It is a system in which the student is surprisingly not to the fore and in which educational quality is not a preeminent concern, in fact almost irrelevant as a market driver it would seem!  The definition deployed by many of a satisfied student is a student that gives!  The percentage of alumni that give a donation, even if it is just a dollar, is a key metric of institutional student success.  The same is true of research there is no real measure of quality, with many institutions now openly and aggressively chasing research dollars to bolster their fragile financial models.  One has to wonder how the US has maintained a preeminent position within the research rankings and how long this can last?

The institution (and President [VC]) that impressed me most, and the one that I would work for given a chance, may surprise many of you since it was a teaching only institution.  Yes I know, for one who has committed his life to research I need to wash my mouth out now with soap for uttering such a statement!  NOVA is a Community College and effectively a vocational feeder college providing open entry education and turning out either vocationally trained professionals with associate degrees or individuals with sufficient credit to transfer to four year programmes and full degrees at other institutions such as George Mason University.  They don’t do any research, it is not part of their mission, but boy do they have a societal impact!  The vision on display through their inspiring President of the future economic needs of the State, of the social problems that might arise from a failure to meet them, of the work force skills needed to tackle these challenges and how to fill them was impressive: linking supply, demand and future societal need in one seamless skills escalator.  An outstanding role model of what could be achieved if we are brave in working with Bournemouth and Poole College in the future and with the schools that feed it.

I was less impressed by the social engineering behind cohort creation at George Washington University which aims at creating an influential peer group for life; a ready-made old boys/girls network.  Laureate was interesting and their ability to bring scale to online courses impressive, but a relative small part of their business in reality.  Their real focus seemed to be on global acquisitions, investing capital to help partner institutions overseas lever the maximum potential from their brands.  I was left with the impression of a powerful, politically well-connected institution with ambition, but one based on maximising the potential from other institutions brand and market position.  Perhaps exactly what one might expect from a private for profit provider and one that sees the future in the societal and global need for inexpensive mass education.

It’s worth just touching on Howard University, one of the oldest historically black universities, a relic of the policy of racial segregation in the US based on the Plessey Principle of ‘separate but equal’.  One of the things that struck a chord with me was a simple statement made by the International Director: ‘the challenge is between attracting better students versus constantly working to make the students one has better’.  I thought this was superb because it focuses attention on the key challenge not on the quality of input, but the enhancement we as educators need to provide to an individual.  That is a real focus for educational enhancement and student satisfaction!

Lots to think about but I keep returning to the issue of quality and its measure, or more precisely the lack of a consistent measure of it within the US system.  Quality and its measurement is at the heart of our system, both within research and education, and as we face the final preparations for REF and are in the middle of our institutional quality audit I have been reflecting on how lucky – yes lucky – we are to have such robust and strong measures of quality.  In my view they make our higher education system one of the best in the World and long may they live!

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