Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Higher Education from the Economist Perspective

Periodically the Economist prints a longer article that they call a survey. It is a thoughtfully constructed piece that deals with an issue area in depth. For example, before Micklethwait and Wooldridge published their excellent book on the challenges and promises of globalization the Economist published a survey. In the September 10 edition they published one of these ditties on Higher Education.

These things are always a mix of great stats and some interesting ideas. For example, the survey suggests that higher education, like almost no time in its history, is in a period of change. For an industry that celebrates in clothing derived mostly from the middle ages - that is a big statement. They offer four reasons for this. Massification - more people aspire to and are attending higher education. The Rise of the Knowledge Economy - in the last decade the role of knowledge based industries has shown itself in many ways. In my state of California - the leading industries are knowledge based - computers, biotechnology, entertainment, foreign trade and professional services. In OECD countries the percentage of GDP attributable to knowledge based industries has grown pretty quickly (from 51-59% in Germany in the last 15 years and from 45-51% in the UK). Third is globalization - what has transformed business will also transform universities. Finally there is competition - there are more choices and indeed more types of choices.

The most interesting conclusion of the survey is about future trends. They suggest that the reason that American higher education seems to lead the pack is because it is not a system. The state it turns out is not a reliable partner. They cite an index from Jiao Tong university that suggests that of the top 20 universities in the world (Based on a set of criteria that include things like Nobel winners and citations in referred journals) 17 are in the US (surprisingly 6 of those are in California). In the top 50 - 35 are US,in the top 100 - 53 are US based. The economist thinks that a good part of that is because of a limited role (no real ministry of education). But it also thinks that competition among private and public, proprietary and non - ultimately leads to good results. Finally there is something which seems obvious - American universities are not just places of learning but action - in their words it is "allright to be useful." They quote Henry Steele Commager - who said "education was his religion' provided that it "be practical and pay dividends." Actually a comment that Dickens made in his trip to America in the 1840s also hits the mark - "Whatever the defects of American Universities may be, they disseminate no prejudices; rear no bigots; dig up the buried ashes of no superstitions; never interpose between the people and their improvement; exclude no man because of his religious opinions; above all in their whole course of study and instruction recognize a world and a broad one too, lying beyond the college walls."

The survey does not suggest that American universities are granted this position in perpituity. With potential interventions by government, political correctness, a certain amount of isolation created after 9/11 and a number of other problems they could be challenged. But the Economist speculates that it will not come from the traditional European universities. Schroeder once commented that Germany had the distinction that it had the oldest graduates and the youngest retirees. There is a lot of promise in the developing world - at least in those countries where a ministry of education does not control the game.

Finally, they speculate that just as business now has to compete worldwide - with technology and travel - students and scholars have a much wider universe in which to compete. They conclude with four pithy points - first, a market oriented educational system is better able to combine "equity with excellence." At the same time the system produces a good mix of choices. With differing sources of financing and support the market model is more sustainable. Finally, serving many masters allows institutions to gain control over their own destiny.

Reprints of the entire article are available from their website

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