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.