The view from the top

One of the curiosities of the system of higher education in these islands is that we know relatively little about the views of its leaders. Individual university principals, presidents or vice-chancellors go public about this and that, or chair committees on certain topics – but nobody really knows what the group as a whole feels.

We know much more about the views of American university presidents. We know, for example, that they are sceptical about MOOCs,  that they expect to experience budget shortfalls, that they feel government produces problems rather than solutions; and that a significant minority believe that they’ll leave their jobs as a result of pressure from their boards rather than of their own free will.

How do we know all this? Because the Gallup polling organisation (commissioned by Inside Higher Education) conducts an annual survey of College and University Presidents, the latest of which was published recently. Of course universities consist of more than their chief executives, but the views of leaders help to shape policies, and also may reflect wider assumptions within the academy.

What we discover from this US survey is a much greater expectation than might have been expected that traditional teaching methods will continue to drive the system, and that technology-enabled learning will not take over completely. They do however expect much more inter-institutional collaboration. They doubt that the state can continue to fund higher education even to the extent that it currently still does in the US. They worry about government bureaucracy.

With some exceptions, university heads are often a fairly anonymous group of people, not widely known to their students, and sometimes even to their faculty and staff. However, they have a huge influence on the direction taken by their institutions, and collectively on the direction of higher education as a whole. It is therefore right to reveal their thoughts and expectations more widely – an undertaking that might usefully be extended beyond the United States.

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8 Comments on “The view from the top”


  1. Very true. I feel I know more about US higher education than European. Just off the plane from Dublin on my way to a distance learning conference in Madison. In preparation I was doing some research on Competency Based Learning (CBL). I found lots of information on CBL in the US. US University presidents think that CBL will have more impact than MOOCs in the next few years (mostly because CBL will unleash many innovations, MOOCs among them). I wasn’t able to find out anything about CBL in Europe. Any help would be appreciated, by the way.

    • Al Says:

      Brian
      Perhaps you might look at the Irish apprenticeship model called the standards achieved apprenticeship. Unless the learner/apprentice reaches a determined standard (70%) they cannot progress through the phases of on and off the job placements. It is a very well developed system that at present in under review.
      There is a Copenhagen Process for vocational learning within Europe: http://ec.europa.eu/education/vocational-education/copenhagen_en.htm
      As a personal opinion, we may have to relook at placing all education within one framework where apprenticeships at level 6 lead on to level 7 degrees. Germany, as an example of best practise does not do this.
      It is a worthwhile exercise to look at the development of skill and competency indicators with the N.F.Q. and reflect on the development of both….


      • Thanks, Al. I’ll follow that up. As someone who has been working in distance learning for the past 10 years I have become convinced that the apprenticeship model for education is the best and should be applied to ALL higher education. Might it be true to say that the competency based approach is only associated with vocational education? (We’re often not sure precisely what a university graduate is supposed to be able to do?).

        By the way, I thought Bologna did specify a structure for level 6 apprenticeships moving on to level 7 degree. We consider most of the between level 5 and 6 and with some bridging studies allow them to progress. Are you suggesting that Germany should change or not? I didn’t quite get your drift on that.

        • Al Says:

          Hi again.
          A few comments.
          Arent we supposed to know what graduates are supposed to do?
          There are programmatic and modular learning outcomes?

          I wonder if the apprentice model could be applied with the ratio of academics to students, however this could a potent conversation if all stakeholders in higher education engaged in it!

          With regard to a pure competency based approach, how would an assessment strategy be implemented? Some skills and therefore competencies may take years to develop and maintain and with that in mind how can they be assessed over a 10-15 week module?

          The level 6’s and 7’s you refer to come from the Irish N.F.Q. (Nation Framework for Qualifications); whereas the Bologna process only deals with higher education? But to use your example, one could have a situation where a person could have trained for 4 years reached merit distinction to become an Electrician and then spent X years working at the cutting edge of renewables and how much recogition is given for this?
          As it stands, they may have to attend a bridging course to take this level 6 to a higher education level 7 to sit within a cohort of people who have just completed the leaving cert.
          That is both insulting and laughable!

          Whereas in Germany, such a person could develop further with a vocation specific progression aimed at developing the already established skill set further. Compare that to here where it is arguable that the progression in terms of skill and competency is broken.

          At a macro level, look at the developed world and the growing youth unemployment problem. How many of them are graduates? This issues are crucial to the understanding and solving of this problem. The rewards arising from the solution are quite obvious?

  2. V.H Says:

    I expect there is an aspect of what the former director of the NMI Pat Wallace mentioned on the radio a few months ago.
    Wallace, when dealing with the civil service had to slot into a position built for him by the CS and his comment was weighted from that position.
    If you were dealing with a system daily where you were tipped and nudged into a version of compliance and given non choices. Then whatever gold braid and notional power one had in their own pond once they begin listening to the way they are treated by the CS they would be conned into a belief of utter powerlessness. It would take a very ballsey vice-chancellor with a lot of F*&^ You money of their own to hold their own in such an environment.
    Until the day arrives when then V-Cs are presenting a bill as distinct from a begging bowl you’ll have silence from that quarter. It’s a blessed wonder they haven’t photographed them for digital face recognizing ID tracking like they have with the unemployed.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    What is also interesting from the Inside Higher Education piece linked to this post is the bit regarding College Leaders’ views on affirmative action; issues of race, diversity, equality and wider participation are not unique to the US of course, similar concerns are shared in Europe as well. As Fvp suggests in his conclusive remarks it would be right if Uni leaders’ views would be more widely known since they have the potential to shape HE policies but also, I would add, to perform the much needed role of *public intellectuals*, it falls upon them to lead by example as the public good can only be served when the public intellectual is a role welcomed and encouraged on any university campus.

  4. foleygGreg Says:

    Ferdinand, I’m far more interested in what the young, thirty-something lecturer and/or researcher has to say about our third level system. Let’s face it, senior academic administrators and civil servants are very detached from the realities of the coalface and talk about education in the abstract. At times, I think they inhabit a parallel universe, completely detached from the realities of what the average lecturer experiences.Thus, while Presidents and policy-makers talk about “transformation” , “digital intelligence”, “innovation” and “critical thinking”, we have to deal with students who frequently lack motivation and commitment and who have poor levels of literacy and numeracy. While a consistent insidious reduction in standards has been occurring, many policy-makers are busy waffling about the 21st century and jobs “that haven’t yet been invented”. All Presidents and policy-makers should take a little time out to experience the coalface again. Wading through a large bundle of exam scripts is an excellent learning experience!
    Greg


  5. This lack of a clear picture of what UK university leaders think led us at PA Consulting to develop our annual survey of the heads of UK universitiies. Now in its fifth year, our most recent survey was published a few weeks ago, based on replies from about a third of the sector. The survey shows that we are witnessing a sea-change in the way that vice chancellors see the business universities are in; instead of seeing universities as driven by government policy and funding arrangements, they increasingly see themselves as operating in a competitive national and international marketplace for feepaying students. The student experience is the competitive battleground.

    There are some interesting parallels with the reports from America -for example UK VCs think that MOOCs are important but definitely will not spell the end of traditional forms of academic delivery. Interestingly, they too see government policy as more likely to be a blocker to their plans than a source of strategic direction.

    You can see a summary of the report and request a copy here:
    http://www.paconsulting.co.uk/our-thinking/pas-2013-survey-of-he-leaders/


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