I had the pleasure of attending the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE) conference this week in Paris. A mouthful of acronyms I know (more on that later), but it was actually great. I was there to broaden my knowledge of higher education and to see what the diverse audience of 500 international delegates thought of the new Blue Skies edition.
One of the good things about such conferences is getting a sense of the common issues and challenges facing higher education around the world. For me there were six main themes that arose; concerns about declining public funding, the negative (if inevitable) impact of league tables, risks surrounding standardisation, how to create ‘T-shaped’ graduates, the challenges accompanying global English and finally how to respond to accelerating internationalisation.
However, as always at such conferences, the main sessions and common themes are only interesting to a point (and not just because I always struggle to sit and listen attentively for any great length of time). The really useful insights tend to come out of the conversations during the breaks, talking to other delegates and learning about the nitty-gritty details of the specific issues they are thinking about. Below is a whistle-stop tour of what I picked up about different areas of the world.
- Southern Africa: student demand is high but there are challenges in securing long-term funding e.g. for technology investment
- Singapore: taking a portfolio approach and developing a diverse HE system e.g. institutions specialising in technical skills, research or humanities
- Hong Kong: massive growth in private tutoring, variable prices and quality, impact on fair access and long-term equity
- Australia: patchy growth from mineral wealth (3/8 regions and just 8 individuals), mineral taxes probably won’t deliver investment in education on the ground, huge salaries for high-intesity fly-in/out low-skill jobs are attracting people away from HE in the short term, there is a focus (and more funding) in mining-relevant disciplines, some trickle down of benefits
- Europe: much opposition to league tables, with a growing focus on internationalisation, English language and creating world class universities
- Brazil: language a barrier to mobility and global standing, with plans to teach more in English
- Canada: increasingly successful at recruiting international students
- China: British HE still a strong attractive brand, huge graduate growth, likely to lead the world in citations soon, but variable quality with some globally competitive insitutions
- England: another London Met -type affair could be truly damaging, UKBA seen as very heavy handed, talk of proportional ‘punishment’, and even failure…
There are no obvious solutions to these different issues, either global or national. But I do have three ideas that might help. I wonder how universities can be supported to collaborate with each other better (within and between countries), how they can do more with less, and how we might promote diversification (specialisation) in the sector without stratification (winners/losers).
Lastly, my time at the conference also convinced me that the higher education sector needs to learn to communicate in a far more engaging, coherent and persuasive way. Whether it’s competing with other spending priorities, defining it’s purpose and mission, or describing the impact it has – I wish it could tell a simpler and more compelling story.