Book of the week: Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education

Rick Trainor discovers a critique of relevance on both sides of the pond

January 14, 2010

The American higher education system looms large in debates surrounding the present condition and future direction of its British counterpart. During the last quarter of the 20th century, the westward focus of UK commentators increased markedly, with widespread assent to the proposition that US universities were the best in the world. By 2003, the belief that UK universities should model themselves on their US cousins was strong enough for the White Paper on higher education to praise, for example, California's division of labour between research universities, teaching institutions and community colleges. In the interim, calls for emulation have gained further momentum from the very strong showing of US universities in the upper echelons of league tables.

Robert Zemsky's book provides a reality check for unqualified versions of this adulation - especially as he writes with the credibility of a long-time professor and administrator at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education. As its title suggests, this resolutely US-focused volume devotes far less space to the merits than to the shortcomings of the US higher education system. Zemsky faults his country's universities and colleges for low undergraduate completion rates, rapid inflation of costs and fees, ethnic differentials in attainment, neglect of learning outcomes, inefficiency, money chasing and obsession with league tables. As a remedy, he suggests an ambitious programme of reform to tackle "the changing educational needs of a knowledge economy ... the impact of globalisation, rapidly evolving technologies, an increasingly diverse and ageing population, and an evolving marketplace characterised by new needs and new paradigms". This approach may be unsettling to Britons accustomed only to accounts of the successes of the best-endowed US private universities.

What can readers outside the US learn from this lively and thematically wide-ranging book? Certainly they should not conclude that the widely admired strong points of the US system are myths. Such a deduction would frustrate Zemsky, who is well aware of the many assets of US higher education. Underpinning his critical analysis is a clear recognition of important positive features of US higher education, such as its exceptional breadth (enrolling two thirds of high school graduates), great diversity of students and institutions, flexible curriculums, international research standing and prowess in private fundraising.

Indeed, the rival critiques of US higher education ably analysed by Zemsky point to a major strength of the system: its persistent search for yet higher achievement. In this respect, US calls for reform of higher education may remind UK-based readers of the suggestions increasingly voiced in Britain for bettering universities and colleges.

Yet there are important differences between these two sets of discussions. Whereas the US debates outlined by Zemsky start from the premise that a broad higher education system is a national necessity, much British discussion, especially in the press, continues to debate whether the lesser breadth of the UK system is too great. Similarly, whereas critics in the US concentrate on the advantages of securing better teaching and attainment right across the higher education system, too many British commentators focus on the secondary issue of allegedly variable standards among UK universities.

Most fundamentally, while the US debate is premised on a clear and widespread belief in the great, if imperilled, merits of the US system, British opinion often pays too little attention to the successes of UK universities, even in comparison with their US counterparts. For example, British commentators often overlook UK universities' superior completion rates, the greater rigour concerning undergraduate assessment inherent in the existence of an external examiner system, their greater ability (allowing for the much greater size of the US population and its university system) to attract overseas students and, as suggested by the Sainsbury report, their arguably superior record in commercialisation.

Of course, this is not to suggest that the UK higher education system is perfect, any more than US universities are. Nonetheless, there has been too little recognition in the UK of its high international research standing (aided by rises in public investment in recent years), despite persisting American strength and rapidly rising competition from countries such as China and India. Likewise, the UK system receives too little credit domestically for its success in protecting standards despite the huge increase in UK student numbers during the past 25 years. Similarly too few observers on this side of the Atlantic have learned one of the basic lessons propounded by Zemsky: that outstanding achievement in higher education depends on adequate resources - for teaching (which was substantially underfunded, even before the UK's public expenditure crisis began) as well as for research.

There are increasingly numerous exceptions to such myopia - notably the September 2009 report of the CBI's higher education task force (of which I was a member). Yet, despite a rapidly growing awareness in the UK of the centrality of universities to the country's economic, social and cultural welfare, a significant element of domestic undervaluation of the British higher education system persists. Far from being an antidote to supposed university "complacency" (a characterisation that is difficult to reconcile, for example, with the intense competition among UK institutions to upgrade facilities and services), such attitudes encourage defensiveness and thereby discourage effective efforts further to improve the UK sector.

Implicit in Making Reform Work, however, are many common features of the US and UK university systems - which are widely recognised, not least in world league tables, as being the two leading forces in global higher education. As outlined in Building a Global Civil Society, the report of the UK/US Study Group on Higher Education and Collaboration in Global Context, shared positive characteristics include concern for fair access, esteem for academic freedom and university autonomy, emphasis on both teaching and research, effective interaction with the private and public sectors, positive economic impact, strong international orientation and increasing concern for higher education in developing countries.

Likewise there are many common problems: inadequate preparation of school pupils, especially in socially deprived areas; rapidly rising expectations of students, families and governments; concerns about the readiness of graduates for employment; worries about student finance; and substantial dependence on uncertain government expenditures (not least in the US, where nearly four fifths of students are enrolled in public universities). In short, the two systems share enough positive and negative aspects to collaborate further with each other both in domestic reform and in international initiatives, notably in partnership with emerging countries.

Zemsky's book, although it says relatively little about research and its relationship to teaching, provides a good starting point for a balanced approach to the further improvement of higher education in both countries. Among his valuable bits of advice are that institutions should strive to be "market-smart and mission-centred", that reform efforts should be strategic, that reformers should avoid vilification and lamentations, and that university leaders themselves should play leading roles in such campaigns. Not least in these hard times, UK-based reformers should emulate Zemsky in acknowledging the merits of their country's system while outlining practical and well-resourced ways through which the strengths of British universities can be enhanced.


Robert Zemsky is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education and was founding director of its Institute for Research on Higher Education. His research interests centre on how, in a world increasingly dominated by market forces, colleges and universities can be both mission-centred and market-aware.

He feels compelled to write regularly and often. To help him with his condition as an "addicted writer", his wife has worked to turn him into a "reasonably competent" under-gardener. "She is a Master Gardener, which is actually a formal designation in this country," he says.

In his free time, he enjoys producing pottery, although he says of his skill: "I am not spectacular but competent on the wheel. The chemistry of glazing still continues to confuse me, however."

Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education

By Robert Zemsky

Rutgers University Press, 240pp, £22.50

ISBN 9780813545912

Published 15 September 2009

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