Great expectations need a great deal of thought

December 13, 2002

Is it still possible for governments to provide citizens with wide access to quality higher education and at the same time maintain key universities as world-class centres for research?

Public demands for quality assurance and increased access have been the key public policy issues facing higher education for most of the past century. In the US, as long as access to college-level study was extended to less than 20 per cent of the 18 to 25 age cohort - a period ending in the early 1960s - it was possible to meet student needs with a limited array of institutional types. Undergraduates were educated in residential settings with prescribed disciplinary curricula. Many institutions aspired to provide graduate and professional programmes so that faculty could expect a workable balance of teaching and research commitments.

Over the past three decades, however, America has witnessed a dramatic change in the classic model of the research-oriented residential campus. Demands for access at levels over 50 per cent for the 18 to 25 age group have outrun the public support for increased higher education spending in most states. The mismatch between demand and public spending has been exacerbated by the parallel expansion of the costs of research.

The sheer scale of resources necessary to support a comprehensive research university has placed severe limits on the number of institutions capable of fulfilling that mission. Sound public fiscal policy requires a finite number of comprehensive research universities. It takes about $800 million (£500 million) a year to operate a public comprehensive research university in the US. If that institution has a medical school, add another $400 million. Public institutions can rarely count on much more than a quarter of their revenue from the state. The remainder is leveraged from tuition, federal and foundation research funds, as well as from endowment.

Given this reality, it is likely that states with fewer than 5 million people and of moderate wealth could support only one comprehensive research university. Many other institutions will need to find a niche with a more limited array of graduate and professional programmes. Federal and state governments have committed themselves to providing educational opportunities for an increasing proportion of the 18 to 25 age group and to extend these same opportunities to adult learners as part of a strategy to cope with the demands of a global knowledge economy.

These same governments are also committed to ensuring the quality of this expansion - but they are rarely prepared to invest adequately in the full cost of their aspirations. Indeed, they have quietly passed on much of this cost to students and their parents. At some point, exactly what proportion of the cost should be borne by the student will be subject to wider public debate.

The higher education community often connects quality to a specific manner of delivery based primarily on the residential undergraduate mode and on a faculty committed to teaching and research. While government demands for increased capacity and enhanced performance may be unreasonable without corresponding public investment, they will also demand greater flexibility in educational delivery and a higher level of accountability than most of our colleges and universities are prepared to offer.

Higher education leaders must recognise that institutional missions have to become even more differentiated and responsive to the demands of all students. Full-time residential students are already a minority in the US, and for most an undergraduate degree is obtained part time or discontinuously over six years in at least two institutions. Higher education must therefore begin to discuss quality outcomes in the context of different institutional missions.

European governments, too, are committed to increasing the social and economic contributions of higher education without the scale of investment necessary to achieve their ends. These governments are also committed to quality assurance. But they often base their measures on uniform standards and expectations that fail to recognise the impact of expanded access on the increased variety of institutions and of educational delivery systems.

Europe must also find a way to justify that increased investment by presenting a more flexible range of options, and must insist on quality judgements that are sensitive to different institutional missions. The basis for a more meaningful policy dialogue requires recognition of the connections between expanded access, greater expectations on the part of governments, and the diversification of institutional missions and educational delivery systems.

David Ward is president of the American Council on Education.

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