Imperatives for Change
in Higher Education

Planning the Future of the American Campus
By Prakash Nair

Background
Over the past few years, I have discussed how the school facilities in which most of America’s children are educated are physical relics of a bygone era. I have also shown how, by clinging to the familiar physical model of school, we are showing our continued preference for a mass-production model of education in a world that demands a highly customized education for each child. In a piece I wrote for Education Week titled, But Are They Learning? (Nair 2002). I proposed that “misguided nostalgia” and not logic was dictating the way we develop environments for learning. Ending on a positive note, I pointed, hopefully, to the emergence of “new paradigm” schools as the wave of the future. This trend toward alternative types of learning places is best evidenced by the spread of specialized and charter schools and career academies and the ever-increasing numbers of students being home-schooled.

As these kinds of alternative environments gain currency, another popular perception of the school is also changing. Today’s school is no longer seen always as a citadel removed from the life that goes on around it. Many communities are accepting, even demanding, schools that are more permeable – institutions that send students out into the community even as the school itself opens its own doors to welcome “outsiders” in as active partners in education.

One often hears the refrain that K-12 reform is a product of American universities. It is here that many new ideas are born and new schemes to improve learning unveiled. Many of today’s leading educational thinkers are indeed university-based. Who will argue that Howard Gardner, Linda-Darling Hammond, James Comer and Tony Wagner are at the forefront of the K-12 reform movement? But even as K-12 reforms find a friendly home in the university, the American campus itself is undergoing a major identity crisis.

Higher Education – Imperatives for Change
The urgency to define a clear vision for America’s higher education system has never been greater than it is today. Surprisingly, though, the impetus for reforms in America’s colleges and universities does not seem to be driven by a need to improve quality, but rather, as a way to deal with their financial woes.

For many years now, the publicly funded colleges and universities have seen a steady decline in their government subsidies. Nobody has yet argued effectively that these cuts have reduced the quality of our higher education system. The primary reason for this seems to be that even the higher education institutions who know how quality suffers from budget cuts are reluctant to admit this, because if they do, they will be accountable for solutions. The issue is that real solutions to the problems confronting higher education are not just expensive, but require massive organizational and governance changes that scare conservative establishments. Therefore, they make incremental cuts instead to distribute the pain. At the same time, they continue to use outdated indicators to measure success, such as the number of students graduated. Until there is a willingness on the part of the American higher education establishment to set up a completely different accountability system than the one they now have, American colleges and universities, like their K-12 counterparts, will continue on their road to irrelevance.

In order to understand the future of the American campus and, by extension, implications for their design, it is important to look at what is happening in the world outside education. In this regard, there are four key change agents or trends that this country’s higher education establishment needs to be mindful about. They are:

  1. Technology-driven growth of information and communication: It is safe to say that the biggest change to hit the world within the last decade with ramifications for education is the information and communication revolution. This revolution continues to be fueled by quantum leaps in technological advancement – mostly emerging from American corporations and, yes, American universities. However, far from guaranteeing the kind of economic supremacy that older technological advances had guaranteed the developed countries, today’s advances seem often to have a chilling effect on the American job market even though multinationals are adding to their bottom line. To understand why this is happening, we need to look at the next trend which is globalization.

  2. Globalization: Nobody can pinpoint exactly when it happened, but just as American industry began to lose ground with the global industrial marketplace, so too is the American service sector, long seen as the invincible 800-lb gorilla in the world of intellectual capital, now taking a beating with the growth of the global communications revolution. The loss of many intellectually-driven jobs from American shores to so-called developing countries like India and China is a direct byproduct of the Internet era. Underlying these two trends – the technological advances and, with it an acceleration of globalization - is competition.

  3. Competition: The idea of increased competition is something that this country’s higher education system has almost never had to contend with before. Today, in a global marketplace, education itself is becoming a commodity. In a fast-changing world, an important characteristic for the delivery of quality educational programs is agility. Agility to define and redefine program offerings to match needs. Again, something that is almost foreign to the way the larger institutions operate. While still a small movement today, competition may also come in the form of “virtual universities.” For example, Capella University is a good example of a totally virtual university that charges about the same amount as many traditional universities but allows students to conveniently attend while holding on to full-time jobs (www.capella.edu). This is an important consideration as more and more poor and middle-income students are finding it impossible to pay the increasingly high costs of college (Ron Nissimov, Houston Chronicle, 1/13/03).

  4. Accountability: As if these forces were not in and of themselves difficult to deal with, today there is a greater push for accountability from the public and from elected officials. The lack of adequate performance measures tied to funding hurts the higher education institutions financially and makes it more difficult for them to adjust to the many external factors discussed above. Another area in which accountability is being manifested is the support, or lack thereof, that higher education institutions get from their local constituents. While universities have always seen themselves as a regional and national resource, there is an increasing reluctance on the part of alienated local communities to support them in times of financial constraints. Not surprisingly, local community colleges often garner greater local support, partly because the quality of their services continues to improve and partly because they seek to serve the immediate needs of the communities around them. Because of this, they also find it easier to preserve their government funds than do universities.


Prakash Nair

"The impetus for reforms in America’s colleges and universities does not seem to be driven by a need to improve quality, but rather, as a way to deal with their financial woes."

"Until there is a willingness on the part of the American higher education establishment to set up a completely different accountability system than the one they now have, American colleges and universities, like their K-12 counterparts, will continue on their road to irrelevance."


Aerospace Lab at MIT
An example of successful use of emerging developments in communications and technology
Cambridge 7 Associates

 

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designshare.com | January 2003