Higher Education in America, by Derek Bok

An evaluation of US tertiary education prompts Mary Stuart to reflect on how the UK is changing

October 24, 2013

In the past few years, UK government ministers have paid a lot of attention to the American higher education system, and some new ideas introduced in England, at least, have come directly from the US. Higher Education in America, written by a former president of Harvard University, serves to highlight the similarities between issues we face in the UK with those in the US. Derek Bok sweeps through a number of current concerns: massification and widening participation; curriculum design and teaching; funding and leadership; technology and massive open online courses; research and America’s standing in higher education on the world stage. All these themes reverberate with discussions in the UK.

However, the two main issues in the US academy that Bok views as needing urgent attention are lesser concerns in the UK: the preparedness of high school graduates for higher education and completion rates for degree study. Although we discuss preparedness for higher-level study, it does not attract the same level of attention that it does across the Atlantic. The UK’s completion rates are among the best in the world and a real success story in an age of massification. The US, Bok tells us, has the world’s highest entry rate into tertiary study at 68 per cent. But its attrition rates are much higher than ours; with graduation rates at about 50 per cent, the percentage of the US population to have successfully completed higher education is not far off that of the UK.

The US’ higher education system is constructed differently from ours: it has more private colleges and universities; a more structured tiered system with four-year and two-year colleges; and a longer tradition of for-profit institutions. However, recent changes in England allowing for more private for-profit and not-for-profit institutions are leading to more similarities. Increasing diversity in the system, it is argued, will create greater competition, and the US certainly has greater variation in tuition fee structures. However, Bok argues that “competition in most industries tends to lower prices. [But] in HE…what appeals to talented students…is often not lower prices but higher quality or what is commonly thought to be higher quality.”

Bok is worried about the fees issue and sees the system as unsustainable. State and federal funding for higher education has dropped from 32 per cent of public university revenues in 1980 to 18 per cent in 2009, with fees rising to make up the shortfall. Across the different nations in the UK, we also see ongoing concern about the funding and sustainability of a world-class system.

In terms of widening participation, the US sector’s concerns are similar to ours: students from poorer families are less likely to undertake higher education even if they have good grades, and they are less likely to attend more prestigious institutions. Bok argues for greater use of advice and guidance; this is also familiar territory.

I always take with a pinch of salt comments about students being less dedicated to their studies than they were in earlier times, as much of the literature historically has asserted that students do not take their studies seriously. However, Bok does quote recent research that suggests that students undertake less study outside class time than they once did. He goes on to suggest that because students are given information on what class time will be expected of them, they choose classes with fewer contact hours. This is interesting in the context of English institutions being required to publish contact hours in Key Information Sets. The intention is that students will choose classes with more contact in order to get value for money, but if we are to follow the US example, where such information has been available for some time, it could have the opposite effect.

Alongside teaching, which he sees as paramount, Bok discusses research. US funding for research is highly concentrated and decreasing – another scenario familiar to us in the UK. He argues against the “publish or perish” culture, and worries that the increasing reliance on philanthropic and industrial donations can interfere with academic freedom to explore wide-ranging research topics.

Higher Education in America is easy to read and comprehensive, with Bok covering a number of other issues in addition to those noted above. It is a useful overview of the state of US higher education in the early 21st century, and valuable in helping me to compare and reflect on our own system. I found many of these debates recognisable and just as hard to resolve in the UK.

Higher Education in America

By Derek Bok
Princeton University Press, 496pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691159140 and 9781400848300 (e-book)
Published 16 September 2013

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