Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation

August 25, 2011

Amid the current speculation in the UK about new providers entering the embryonic higher education marketplace comes this timely book from the US. In it one quickly discovers that "reinventing" refers principally to arguments in favour of for-profit universities and allied online educational provision. To this end, the editors have commissioned eight contributors to present their cases.

For someone who thinks this sounds like putting Arthur Daley from Minder in charge of a university, I enjoyed being taken beyond the headlines spawned by instances of fraud and other sharp practices in US higher education. But although this dark side is touched on, the book focuses more often on the positive innovations of a number of institutions, most notably the University of Minnesota Rochester.

There are also some useful data on US professors' salaries, tenure, tuition fees and profiles of students, although perhaps unsurprisingly the professoriate is castigated for a string of self-serving restrictive practices that fail to serve the diverse and changing needs of prospective students.

I was expecting to discover more about online learning, but a dedicated chapter concludes by arguing for experiments in the blended learning that I suspect many of us have been grappling with for a while. And I was dis-appointed, after an interesting chapter on community colleges, to have just one paragraph on online learning, with no discussion of how non-traditional learners in such colleges might be supported to seize these opportunities.

Indeed, many of the examples of online learning presented here are instructional in nature rather than requiring the critical orientation to knowledge that is much cherished by traditional academics, and I wanted to learn more about how this aspect could be replicated and enhanced online. The case for online learning seemed to rely too much on new providers with little hope of acquiring the types of buildings and campuses that the traditional institutions have - even though the authors clarify that plush surroundings are not essential to most students' learning.

The German research-focused model on which the US university system is based comes in for criticism, but the French separation of research from teaching is not addressed, and there is little thoughtful engagement with the teaching-research nexus. Wilhelm von Humboldt's claim that the university should serve scholarship could have been an interesting challenge for the contributors. Their main point is that teachers who focus on learning better serve their students, but it is disappointing to see cognitive psychology cited as though university teaching is a simple, positivistic science. Ernest Boyer is mentioned, but his four scholarships and their interconnectedness are left unexplored.

So why shouldn't students be given more choice in how they study for a degree - be it part-time, online or work-based? In an increasingly customer-orientated academy, the contributors to this volume and those who share their views have a trump card, because it has become hopelessly elitist to claim that students often don't know what they want or need until they have been nurtured in the space of the traditional university.

I wasn't convinced by the arguments presented here, even if they did cause me to reflect on how easily scholars can end up unwittingly defending the more dubious features of the traditional university, including the validation of a bourgeois lifestyle. The book fails to tackle the reasons why those who have middle-class cultural capital to invest may end up with very particular experiences of higher education that could be denied to others. Surely any re-invention of higher education must tackle this question. Yes, in a marketplace you pay your money and you take your chances, but it's the deeper questions that remain troubling, particularly the ones concerning those who hold the purse strings, and what really informs people's choices.

Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation

Edited by Ben Wildavsky, Andrew P. Kelly and Kevin Carey. Harvard Education Press. 296pp, £36.95 and £21.95. ISBN 9781934742884 and 2877. Published 15 May 2011

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