The big idea: one change that could transform universities

What single change to university practice would have the most positive and far-reaching consequences? Eight academics and thinkers give us their views

November 29, 2018
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Harvest the data fields

In modern society, regrettably, higher education is a bit of an outlier. Large-scale organisations in virtually every other sector have transformed themselves by using the data with which they are now awash to improve their performance and better serve their clients. Airlines reduce accidents, costs and complaints by analysing fuel consumption, consumer demand and boarding times. Hospitals track mortality, length of stay and infection rates to better serve those in need. Police departments deploy personnel and adjust tactics based on tracking crime incidents.

In fact, academics have often actively encouraged firms, non-profit organisations and governments to adopt data-driven approaches to their work. But while many colleges and universities have begun to make better use of their own institutional data to improve performance, higher education overall has been a real laggard in this regard.

In US higher education, the challenges are pronounced. More than a third of students who start an undergraduate programme fail to complete it. Student engagement is distressingly low. And student loan default rates are dramatically rising. Yet it is only recently that higher education institutions have begun to put in place “data warehouses” to organise and integrate existing administrative information on students. Few institutions have even attempted to address attrition with predictive analytical reporting systems that draw on administrative and student affairs data. And accreditors’ requirements for academic units to assess student learning have failed to prompt efforts that are more than cursory and compliance-oriented. Indeed, accountability and quality assurance efforts have left many faculty with a distaste for further measurement.

That distaste must be overcome. Holistic measurement plans must be devised by integrating data from the learning management systems and student advisement platforms that virtually all higher education institutions already rely on for instructional interactions. The extent of student engagement in coursework, for instance, is readily apparent from these systems; only in higher education would such data be largely ignored in institutional improvement efforts. Only in higher education would we ask every institutional sub-unit to come up with its own assessment plans, ignoring the inherent administrative inefficiencies and technical inadequacies of such an approach.

It doesn’t have to be this way. My institution, the University of California, Irvine, is a major research university internationally recognised for successfully serving its diverse undergraduates (half of whom are first-generation students, and more than a quarter of whom are Hispanic). Here, with the support of the Mellon Foundation, half a dozen leading educational researchers are working to design a measurement system to document the value of undergraduate education and to improve institutional performance. Over the next few months, we will convene a set of national expert panels to inform efforts to develop measures, protocols and tools associated with learning management systems, administrative and student affairs data, as well as surveys, experiential sampling and performance assessment measurement of students’ cognitive, motivational, socio-emotional, social network and curricular/pedagogical experiences. Hopefully this will provide the impetus that the sector, both nationally and internationally, currently lacks.

Critics of efforts to improve measurement in higher education typically see them as a threat to student privacy. But privacy can easily be protected by anonymising and aggregating data, with improvement efforts focused on institutional, as opposed to individual, performance.

Another objection less commonly articulated but clearly present relates to the whole idea of quantifying the incomprehensible magic of what happens in higher education. But the whole scientific enterprise involves continued striving to address opaque and complex phenomena by improved measurement.

The extensive sacrifices, personal costs and high risks of failure assumed by our students are such that we must do all we can to ensure their success. Harnessing our in-house expertise in social and behavioural science to bring our standards of measurement into the 21st century is the least we owe them.

Richard Arum is dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine. He is co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

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Marry engagement with professional success

One balmy late summer afternoon earlier this year, I decided that I needed a break from the creative strain of writing research grant proposals.

Luckily for me, the Meet Me Tonight festival, organised by Milan’s universities and funded by the European Union, was on. Leafing through the programme, “Leonardo by bike” caught my eye, and I ended up spending an unforgettable two hours braving the Milanese streets on two wheels, visiting artistic sites and learning from an expert on Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus about the enormous contribution of this genius to European culture (albeit that the bicycle that Leonardo supposedly drew in the Codex – which would have made him the machine’s inventor – has been revealed to almost certainly have been added, in a fit of boredom, by one of the monks who restored the document in the 1960s).

I returned to the office slightly tired physically, but with renewed intellectual energy and inspiration. And I am sure that my fellow cyclists felt likewise.

Yet such alchemy is all too rare in Italy. Public engagement is valued by the majority of Italian academics, and they enjoy doing it. However, they are not rewarded for it, so they tend to concentrate on their research and teaching. The pressure to publish or perish on the untenured generation of researchers leaves them little time for public festivals – or nights out celebrating scientific discoveries, such as events funded by the EU’s European Researchers Night programme.

This is an enormous pity. Public engagement improves not only societal impact but also the work environment and quality of academic life in a lab or research group. Innovative festivals, where the layperson can learn, for instance, how to predict a tsunami, via live scientific simulations, remind us that giving back to society is gratifying.

So my big idea for improving universities in Italy is to invest greater resources and develop better government strategies to reward public engagement initiatives. To be fair, the National Agency for University and Research Evaluation (ANVUR) has already begun down this road, and has adopted a definition of engagement that refers not only to educating the public, or communicating final results, but also to working with society. Moreover, in 2014, ANVUR undertook a similar project to the UK’s research excellence framework and collected more than 5,000 impact case studies: three from each university department in the country, and five from each university centrally. However, the evaluation showed that there is ample scope for improvement, and ANVUR reports suggest that current level of resources is not sufficient.

Unless public engagement is structurally embedded in it, the impact agenda risks paying mere lip service to the public understanding of science, without having any real influence on practice.

First, further research is needed to understand the measures universities can and do undertake to facilitate engagement. Then a better system needs to be devised to reward those measures, encouraging universities to place public engagement at the heart of their strategies and priorities.

Public engagement strengthens civic culture and local communities’ trust in universities, whose future – in Italy, as elsewhere – will increasingly depend on the co-production of knowledge, and networked systems. This “engaged university” will steer the country away from the professional oligarchies that have dominated it for centuries and see it pedalling into the future with as much optimism as I felt on that summer afternoon I spent pursuing Leonardo on the machine he probably didn’t invent.

Paola Mattei is professor of political science at the University of Milan.

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Let the nibblers gorge themselves

Many US colleges presently have a fundamental curriculum. This amounts to either an integrated series of classes, or a mandated selection of individual introductory classes. Both aim to expose students to a coherent view of the history of civilisation, as well as to provide an entry-level approach to a variety of academic subjects.

But at some colleges, switching majors is seen as a failure to meet a challenge. It is also costly and time-consuming for the student, sometimes requiring an additional six months or more to garner the essential credits for the new major.

This needs to change. Students today are nibblers, not gourmands. They tend to graze, rather than indulge. And their skill sets have some serious holes. The early years of a college degree should therefore be the academic equivalent to a sandbox: a place to try out ideas and concepts without fear of failure. Flexibility should be foremost in the structure, with goals, benchmarks and guideposts. After all, learning that you don’t want to study something is as valuable as discovering what it is that you want to master.

Colleges need a programme of first- and/or second-year modules from which students can choose much more freely: individualised, ad hoc curricula aimed at three outcomes: personal growth, professional preparation and – if desired – a certificate of achievement or degree to demonstrate competency.

One aspect of this should be courses that amount to “tasting menus”, designed to give the flavour of fields of study, whetting the appetite for additional learning. For example: What is engineering? What skills do you need to study this subject, and what professional opportunities are available afterwards?

A little more abstractly, Why are the arts critical to society? Exploring the need for human expression from the point of view of practitioners and observers could easily fill several weeks of conversation.

Modules designed to build transferable skills are also highly valuable. Perhaps a module in building a community should be on the docket: a variation of something akin to the online game SimCity, which builds up skills about interrelationships – personal, political and institutional. And what about a study of a single building structure, in the context of architectural history, urban studies, the politics and history of the era: the Duomo in Florence or the Acropolis in Athens, for instance?

Additional models designed to enhance general study skills could include a renewal of an old standard, “public speaking 101”, supplemented with “the premise of debate and the articulation of a point of view” and “building an argument or an experiment”. The last would examine logic from philosophical, scientific and psychological perspectives, highlighting which scholars, characters in literature or masters of the universe demonstrate each characteristic.

Leadership studies should also be offered, from the point of view of business, academics, politics, religion, activism and other approaches. Entrepreneurship and investment are also important subjects: how ideas, time and money propel society. Today’s students often lack patience and regaining that is also an art. Real work should be introduced as soon as possible. More new businesses fail than not: an important lesson.

These types of courses would be given in intense spurts: two-, three- or four-week sessions, maybe 10 hours a week, based on highly interactive lectures, discussions and workshops that incorporate not only texts but also experts, demonstrations and new media.

To fit it all in, school calendars would run all day, all week, all year (students no longer need the summer months off to help reap farm crops). Teaching should be undertaken by all types of academics: first-rate teachers of single subjects; masters of intergraded subjects and also renowned researchers who may not necessarily be excellent classroom teachers. Students should also have access to a cadre of professionals, charged with sharing their expertise in and out of the classroom and workplaces. Learning must take on a 360º, multidimensional approach.

Giving students the freedom to design their own curricula within the parameters of a minimally organised framework would not be an academic free-for-all. After making their own way through such a programme, they would be ready to delve into breadth and depth with a greater understanding of what they are looking for.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president and university professor emeritus at the George Washington University, Washington, DC. His most recent book, as co-editor, is Leading Colleges and Universities, which was published in 2018 by Johns Hopkins University Press. Francine Zorn Trachtenberg is a consultant and writer.

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Diversify diversity

Five years ago, I thought things were simple. My one big idea to change the face of higher education would have been open science. I would have argued that this nebulous set of concepts involving access to published research, sharing of data and greater public involvement in doing research was enough to regain the trust that academics are losing, both among ourselves (the reproducibility crisis) and from wider society.

To be fair, I understood then that such radical transparency was never going to be enough on its own. Simply throwing books over the walls of the ivory tower might make knowledge more accessible, but, given the challenges of understanding the average academic paper to anyone without expertise in the immediate field, not accessible enough. That expertise is much more spread than we often think. There are audiences out there even for the “hard stuff”, no matter how apparently esoteric the topic. But we want – and need – to do better.

Shrinking budgets and technological change have created great uncertainty about the future of universities. We need to reach new audiences to enhance the relevance and impact of our work. We need to help wider publics discover and engage with research and scholarship that is relevant to them. And we need much clearer ways to indicate what those publics can trust, and what the limitations of research findings might be.

So the single change I would now advocate is for us to put diversity at the heart of our communication and research practice.

Diversity is a complex concept, but the principle is quite simple. The more diverse groups we can engage in productively negotiating over the claims of scholarship, the more general and applicable the results will be.

In some cases, and at some scales, we are good at this. The university itself brings many different disciplinary groups into enforced contact. The combination of research and teaching in the role of a single person forces us to translate new knowledge, and to reinterrogate old knowledge, for new audiences – just as those new audiences, with their changing demographics, bring new questions.

In other areas, though, we fail utterly. We generally remain awful at engaging productively and respectfully with Indigenous communities – and the exceptions are often led by people of Indigenous heritage. We are awful, for the most part, at engaging with the issues faced by disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities; the exceptions, again, are frequently led by people with experience of those communities. We remain bad – if slowly improving – at working effectively with patient communities. The exceptions, again… Well, you get the picture.

Diversity is therefore not merely a diversity of audiences and channels. As we transition from a broadcast communications model to a networked, interactive one, a much more complex mode of communication from diverse communities is crucial. Knowledge creation within society requires that our institutions contain the diversity of perspectives needed to listen, as well as to communicate effectively. At the centre of this is building a stronger future for a greater diversity of people who want to build careers around knowledge production.

Becoming what we might call an open knowledge institution, in essence, means becoming a platform that effectively coordinates communication not just between social and cultural elites, industry and academics, as we have been in the past, but purposely building systems that respectfully connect with communities that are not currently engaged. But not just building systems: institutionalising them, by placing diversity – and not the narrow homogeneity that wins rankings – alongside communication as core values.

It’s a simple thing to say. I never said it would be a simple thing to do.

Cameron Neylon is professor of research communications in the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University, Western Australia. He leads the Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative, which has recently released a work in progress, Open Knowledge Institutions: Reinventing Universities, on the MIT Press PubPub Platform, where it is available for comments.


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Zip up the gender gap

The world we operate in is changing rapidly, as new technologies, forms of interaction, access to knowledge and network dynamics come into play. This requires our education teams to be responsive, flexible and able to consider many different points of view. But the huge underrepresentation of women, as well as other groups, at higher ranks prohibits essential adaptations from happening at the necessary speed.

Institutes of higher education are a curious combination of pioneering and traditional practices. In terms of research, universities are obviously in the vanguard. But when it comes to institutional culture, they are often conservative, and prone to traditional images of power. This is disadvantageous for the position of women and other underrepresented groups, despite their increasing presence at lower levels in the hierarchy.

Thankfully, a shift is under way, as witnessed by the appointment of diversity officers, the addressing of recruitment processes through HR departments, and awareness programmes for senior staff. But if such “soft” initiatives are genuinely to bring about a cultural shift, they must be accompanied by concrete, assessable measures.

A critical barrier to the increased recruitment of senior female staff is the fact that women typically wait to apply for such positions until their CV is a greater-than-perfect match for the job. Even direct encouragement to apply often needs two or three iterations before women start seriously considering the position. Equally, there is also evidence that women are wise to be cautious. Interviewing shortlists are often male dominated, and women are commonly evaluated with stricter adherence to application criteria than men are. Moreover, lack of time to rigorously scrutinise every applicant often results in the candidate from the old boys’ network being pushed forward undeservedly.

Several years ago, Curt Rice , now president of the Oslo and Akerhus University College of Applied Sciences, proposed the concept of the “ zipper quota ” to drive greater gender diversity in academia. The idea is that a shortlist of suitable women is “zipped” into a shortlist of suitable men, such that the interview shortlist consists of the top however many people from each list. But here we come back to the problem that very few women put themselves forward for top jobs in the first place.

To be successful in recruiting more women for higher positions we therefore need to combine the zipper model for the selection procedure with the obligation for search committees to compile serious shortlists for both genders. This implies that the committees must be charged with searching for suitable female candidates, however long it takes. And selection for those committees should also be based on the zipper model, especially when it comes to posts such as heads of department and institute directors, for which university rules do not require specific university bodies be represented on the committee.

Even so, the journey to full equality, greater diversity and genuine meritocracy will be long and difficult. The impostor syndrome to which female academics are particularly prone will persist, leading them to doubt their ability to do a senior job well. But if those of us in a position to do so also strive to empower and promote female students, postdoctoral fellows and junior staff, we are hopeful that we will eventually see the gender gap at senior levels fully zipped up.

Grietje Molema is professor of life sciences and Marian Counihan is a lecturer in humanities at University of Groningen, the Netherlands.


Prescribe publication for would-be doctors

It has long been possible to get a PhD by publication. This happens when you have such a rich and impressive back catalogue of published research that it seems crazy that you do not hold the same qualification as your peers. A limited new piece of writing that sews that catalogue together is deemed sufficient for the honour to be bestowed on you, boosting your CV while obviating the need for three more years of study.

Yet while you can get a PhD from your publications, you cannot generally get a publication straight from your PhD. Many theses do ultimately yield a string of journal articles, or even a monograph. But when an article or, especially, a book appears based on someone’s PhD, it is probable that the text has been almost wholly rewritten to make it acceptable to publishers.

Surely it is time that PhDs stop being reserved for projects deemed unsuitable for a wider audience in the form in which they are originally written up?

It would not matter so much if converting a PhD into a book was a simple task: if, for example, it merely involved removing the more pedestrian parts of an introductory literature review or adding a short topical conclusion or changing the reference style. But rewriting the whole opus can take months of complicated extra work.

Matthew Smith, who turned his PhD on the UK’s response to economic and monetary union in Europe into a book for Palgrave Macmillan, Policy-Making in the Treasury: Explaining Britain’s Chosen Path on European Economic and Monetary Union (2014), told me that even though this didn’t require any more research or fact-finding, it took him almost a year. While labouring over the presentation rather than the substance of his research was “in some ways a superficial exercise”, he nevertheless “understood that it mattered”. But many people, delighted to have finally finished their doctoral research, simply do not have the time, inclination or financial resources to undertake such a task. Just how much valuable research is missing from our library shelves as a result?

One reason this is frustrating is that, when PhDs do become books, most of the readers are experienced specialists anyway. Rewriting a PhD for a non-specialist audience is always going to be time-consuming and difficult, but, in the main, this is not what I am advocating. Rather, I believe that a PhD should aim at the production of books aimed at others working in the field, rather than populist or dumbed-down tomes.

It has become fashionable in recent years to blame publishers for all sorts of things, but it is hard to think they are at fault here. They know their trade better than anyone, so if they think a book will not find a wider readership, then it probably won’t.

The real problem, it seems to me, is academia’s insistence on PhD students’ first communicating their research in obscure academese. As well as the extra labour this imposes, it also makes any eventual book much less current than it might otherwise be. As director of the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute, I am still waiting for work I commissioned five years ago. In the intervening period, we have had four university ministers, three governments and various different sets of policy priorities.

As a sector, we continue to wonder why academic output is not as influential as it might be. One of the most important reasons is straightforward: we insist that people on the cusp of an academic career write in obscure, impenetrable ways. That should stop.

Nick Hillman is director of the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute.

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Award points for levelling the playing field

The debate on inequality has long raged between those, generally on the right of politics, who claim that inequality is not a problem and those, generally on the left, who believe that it is a problem caused by exploitation. Neither position is quite right.

My own analysis suggests that although exploitation is part of the explanation, the likes of Thomas Piketty – whose bestselling 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century intensified public concern about inequality – are wrong to see it as the main cause. In fact, exploitation accounts for only about a fifth of the long-term increase in inequality since the 1970s. The main causes have, instead, been technology and globalisation (which, incidentally, has had the beneficial side-effect of reducing extreme poverty around the world).

Moreover, a new cause of inequality is the gap in the quality of parenting between the best educated, who tend increasingly to partner with others like them, and those with fewer educational advantages. Homogamy, or associative mating, has been a phenomenon for most if not all of human existence but in the past it was based on status. The rise of education in general and female education in particular means that it is now much more based on education – especially in the UK, where post-school networks are typically forged at university. Even in the US, where fewer leave home to go to university, 71 per cent of college graduates marry other college graduates.

The offspring of such unions seem to have huge advantages compared with those less fortunate. This is not a criticism of parents from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often, given the circumstances, perform close to miraculously in the way they bring up their children. But increasing numbers of “tiger parents”, with advantages of brains, and the money and position that are often associated with brains, can work the system to the advantage of their children.

Traditionally, UK universities saw their role merely as educating those who gained access through competitive entry examinations. The best universities got the best applicants, and while these could often take best advantage of the teaching they offered, the effect was to increase the advantages of the already privileged. In the current century, more emphasis has been placed on widening participation. The Office for Students agrees complex access and participation plans with providers, but the scale of the ambition and the extent of progress can be questioned – especially given the nearly £1 billion a year that universities spend on such initiatives.

As the Universities UK response to the government’s review of post-18 education and funding states: “While the post-18 system has made substantial progress, disparities remain between how likely a young person from a disadvantaged background is to go to university and their likelihood of dropping out, compared with their more advantaged peers.”

And that is now. With inequality likely to increase (its reduction in many Western countries during the past decade is mainly due to the knock-on effects of the financial crisis), it is likely to become a much more important consideration in all matters of public policymaking. So perhaps now is the time to rethink the funding of universities completely.

In boring economic terms, universities confer both private and social benefits. The private benefits are those that are received by the individual – not just improved employability but also access to a greater quality of life. The social benefits are less easy to identify but are also substantial. They include well-known boosts to productivity and gross domestic product. But there are cultural and social cohesion benefits, which are generally much more important.

A straightforward economics-based system of funding universities would have the government directly financing universities only on the basis of the public benefits they provide: the so-called externalities. This would mean that universities would receive public funding according to their performance in three areas: improving national productivity; conferring cultural benefits; and widening access. These are all difficult to measure let alone forecast ex ante . But widely agreed proxies can be found.

Universities are full of brilliant people. If they were more directly incentivised to reduce inequality, we might well be surprised by their success.

Douglas McWilliams is founder and deputy chairman of the London-based economics consultancy Cebr. The Inequality Paradox is published by Overlook Press in New York.

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Take decolonisation to the nth degree

Students in various Western countries have been campaigning for a transformation of the university curriculum. In the UK, the “Why is my curriculum white?” campaign has brought attention to the Eurocentric nature of higher education, and there are movements to “decolonise” the university. But if we are to truly transform the university, we must not fall into the diversity trap.

Adding a few black and brown thinkers to reading lists is the worst form of tokenism. Even creating a few courses with more representative content is still only sprinkling diversity into an institution still defined by whiteness. We need to change not only the face of higher education but its nature if we are interested in true decolonisation. If every university were to offer a fully staffed and supported black studies degree, we would take a major step in the right direction.

I went through my entire formal education in the UK without receiving the merest hint that black people have anything meaningful to contribute to knowledge. Black studies centres on the perspectives, experiences and contributions of Africa and the African Diaspora, and since most universities require students to study courses outside their central discipline, establishing black studies at every university would expose a wide variety of students to the contributions of black scholars.

It would also help deal with the other major issue of representation on Western campuses: the overwhelmingly white workforce. Only about 1 per cent of UK academic staff are black, and less than 150 out of almost 20,000 professors. Running black studies degrees would force universities to hire more black staff and may be the only way to make any meaningful progress on diversifying the faculty.

But the real transformative effect of black studies resides in what Nathan Hare, the US sociologist who pioneered the discipline in the 1960s, called its “community component”. After all, African and Caribbean studies have been fixtures at many UK universities for decades, without resulting in significant reductions in the whiteness and Eurocentrism of workforces and curricula. Black studies, by contrast, explicitly aims to change the way universities work.

An essential element of the subject is the obligation it imposes on students to tie their studies into efforts at social change. Central to this is black studies’ engagement in the lives and struggles of communities outside the university. This is why, at Birmingham City University, we regard a mandatory placement within the community as the beating heart of our black studies degree: to ensure that students have to test and redefine their knowledge off campus. If a student can go through their degree without ever connecting with those outside the university, they have not done black studies.

We provide a new model for the relationship that higher education institutions should have with the communities they are located in. One of the simplest ways to do this is to use universities’ publicly funded buildings as community spaces, for events and to share knowledge. By doing this at Birmingham City, we have broadened our audience far beyond those interested in black studies, making the community participants in the work that we produce.

If every university launched a black studies programme of both teaching and research, the sector could never be the same again. We would have begun the process of truly decolonising the ivory tower.

Kehinde Andrews is professor of black studies at Birmingham City University.

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Reader's comments (4)

Another diversity piece with the hidden undertone of "why don't we get rid of white people". When will this attack on normal people - who just happen to be white - trying to do their jobs eventually be seen as just another form of racism?
"Over the next few months, we will convene a set of national expert panels to inform efforts to develop measures, protocols and tools associated with learning management systems, administrative and student affairs data, as well as surveys, experiential sampling and performance assessment measurement of students’ cognitive, motivational, socio-emotional, social network and curricular/pedagogical experiences." Welcome to the Social Predestination Room (does anyone read Brave New World anymore or does it not have a sufficient citation score?)
Given all the various surveys and performance assessment measurements cited in the first example, I cannot understand why students are submitting compliantly to this never-ending experimentation. Ceding valuable study time to the myriad surveys disseminated over three years of study is quite a considerable waste of time. Of course students are told that as fee paying customers, they need to comment on all of these very important uni strategies and activities, but really, it's just a con and I'm surprised no student has suggested a total boycott of the neoliberal university's predilection for data collection and busybody surveys to service their box-ticking endeavours.
It's surprising how few ideas there really are here, not to mention how few of them are new, or how few of them actually deal with the university writ large. It's all about do this for my group, do this for that group. And of course, what most universities need the most is simple: more money. That's what most students need too.