Making universities worth it
To properly value higher education universities need to be more transparent in reporting their performance
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.
Tonnes 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.
In my new book The Market for Learning I argue that tomorrow’s tertiary leaders must 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.
The Market for Learning offers a transparency roadmap. It reveals the pressures reshaping higher education, clarifies the value and nature of transparency, examines emerging reporting platforms, reviews improvement opportunities for students, faculty, institutions and systems, and forecasts how to engineer important next steps.
It looks at how we can transparently measure the quality and productivity of academic work and university leadership, and the outcomes for students. It creates new futures for higher education by integrating and opening up such issues that so have been confined largely to insiders.
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.
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.
Tertiary value is clearly 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.
Unpacking Higher Education
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, policymakers 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?”
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 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.
Banner Image: Peter Gawthrop/Flickr