Reinventing higher education: the battle for diversity

Chris Parr writes from the Reinventing Higher Education conference in Madrid

October 20, 2015
International travel, countries connected

Before opening the Reinventing Higher Education conference hosted by IE University in Madrid yesterday, Simon Manley had been at a UK university recruitment fair somewhere else in the city.

There were, the British ambassador to Spain told us, “hundreds if not thousands” of young Spanish students queuing up to find out more about studying in Britain. The anecdote set the tone for the discussions that were to follow: international students are good; they bring diversity (and money). But what are the challenges facing universities in the quest to be diverse?

The approaches discussed at the conference were varied. Frederic Mion, president of Sciences Po, spoke of ensuring diversity in terms of domestic intake: accommodating the “wide diversity of the French population” was, he said, of great importance.

The institution has backed this up with scholarships. Some 30 per cent of the institution’s students don’t pay a penny in tuition fees, Mion said. This, he told me afterwards, compares to a national average in France of around 10-12 per cent.

This factor - the number of scholarships available - is something that I have often felt is overlooked in the discussion of tuition fees. Yes, the sticker price for a degree at the big private US institutions dwarfs the piddly £9,000 currently charged in the UK; but how many students are given a grant? How much attention is paid to circumstance when deciding what a student pays, and how easy is it to get a free pass?

While some universities may do better than others on this score, no institution would survive if it gave its education away for free. Karen Sibley, vice-president for strategic initiatives at Brown University, was up front about this.

Asked what the biggest challenge to increasing diversity on campus was, Sibley singled out “cash-flow differences” from country to country.

Brown wants to take students from Peru, Sibley gave as an example, and “we can take one, but we can’t take 10”. At some point, a desire for diversity has to give way to financial sustainability - and even the Ivy League has its limits.

“It is very important for universities to be future-looking, rather than market-driven,” remarked Ahmad Hasnah, president of Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University. His words summed up the sentiment of what was an intriguing and challenging discussion, but such an ideal might well prove harder to implement than it is to articulate.

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