Those seeking to blame someone for the relentless rise of university bashing often look no further than Richard Arum.
His controversial study of undergraduate learning Academically Adrift, co-authored with Josipa Roksa in 2011, is frequently cited by “edusceptics” keen to trash university education or to rail against its allegedly “rip-off” price. They often hold up the book’s central finding, that almost half of US higher education students did not improve their critical thinking or writing skills after two years of study, as evidence that universities are failing today’s young people – or worse.
Last August, Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former chief adviser, described English higher education as a “pointless Ponzi scheme” that was “blighting young people’s futures”, while the UK prime minister herself commented later in 2017 that students “take on a huge amount of debt…and if we are honest, some don’t know what they get…in return”.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, however, Professor Arum, now dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine, is adamant that his influential work did not endorse the increasingly popular view that higher education was no longer worthwhile.
“We never said that college was not valuable because that would be an absurd claim to make, particularly coming from an academic,” said Professor Arum, who described such interpretations of his book as “gross distortions”.
“Higher education degrees are, on the whole, essential for improving not just labour market outcomes, but also other outcomes, such as success in the marriage market,” he added.
Despite his frustration at the use of the book by those with an anti-university agenda, Professor Arum believes that its publication was important in sparking debate about “whether students are getting value for their investment and whether universities could be doing things better”.
His main regret about Academically Adrift is that he did not push its conclusions further, such as how the “failure in undergraduate education” might affect US democracy. The massive decline in independent study hours put in by undergraduates – down from 25 hours a week in 1960 to 11 or 12 hours in 2016, according to a recent study – could explain the lack of political awareness and activism among America’s youth, he suggested.
“We did not argue hard enough about how this phenomenon of the failure of undergraduate education might be tied to the health of our political system and whether it is producing citizens who value democracy,” said Professor Arum, who was a keynote speaker at THE’s Teaching Excellence Summit, held at the University of Glasgow in June.
“We’ve seen a move towards electing autocratic leaders, which is quite frightening for higher education institutions, but we have to share some responsibility for that problem.”
Many educators also credit Academically Adrift for sparking a renewed interest in how learning might be measured, which led to the introduction in the UK last year of the teaching excellence framework, with institutions awarded gold, silver or bronze ratings after institutional assessments. Australia is expected to introduce a similar exercise by the end of the decade.
However, Professor Arum was critical of the TEF’s use of graduate earnings data to assess quality, stating that “these are student-related, but not necessarily about learning”.
“It could lead to huge distortions in institutional behaviour because, if you are assessing early labour-market outcomes, then it may incentivise universities to put on more occupationally oriented courses that do not provide the competencies that let graduates move from job to job as the labour market evolves,” he said.
Instead of moaning about the TEF, however, academics should instead “lean into the problem” of new accountability measures and create their own more credible versions of learning gain, advised Professor Arum.
“I would like to see more academics define for themselves what learning outcomes might look like and then start building better measures of learning that could improve degrees,” he said, adding that learning gain should be a “faculty-led movement, rather than the top-down system that has been promoted in the UK”.
“This type of [top-down] system does not recognise faculty expertise or professional discretion over standards, but if you don’t have any sort of [learning gain metrics] you end up with a scheme like the TEF, which is not about measuring learning quality,” added Professor Arum. “And, even with the best of intentions, this type of scheme can be counterproductive.”