Is the answer a Midwestern model?

March 16, 2001

Some see the University of Wisconsin system as a template for UK higher education. Alison Utley reports that Manchester is looking at the system, which Philip Fine describes below.

The vice-chancellor of Manchester University expects to begin discussions later this year with nearby universities that could lead to the creation of the first higher education confederation along the lines of the US state of Wisconsin model.

Sir Martin Harris said he supported the model of collaboration -a cluster of networked institutions in a city or region allowing staff and students to move between campuses -because it was preferable to mergers.

He said: "If you merge institutions, what you often get is a weakening of both sides. But encouraging universities to work together in groups means staff and students can benefit from the resources of all."

The key would be to emphasise the clearly defined and complementary missions of the institutions in the confederation, he said. This would accommodate equally the wealth-generating research-led agendas as well as those focused on social exclusion.

Facilities of the well-resourced universities could be made available to some staff in the principally teaching institutions, which in turn could retain their widening participation mission. Other special-interest groups such as the Russell Group could exist at the same time.

Sir Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of Southampton University and incoming chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is known to be a fan of the Wisconsin model, which began in the 1960s as a way of controlling expansion.

The system relies on a non-hierachical division of labour between collaborating campuses in a state-wide network that allows complete credit transfer and pathways across campuses. A single university governing board (the board of regents) oversees the budget for all 26 public universities in the state, a feature of the model unlikely to be popular in the UK.

Sir Martin said: "This idea does raise issues of institutional governance, and it is easier to contemplate for those institutions in large conurbations, but if we were starting the world over, we would begin with the Wisconsin model. Given where we are, I think we should work together carefully towards this agenda."

In the longer term, he added, all post-16 institutions could form part of a confederation.

Other neighbouring campuses in the UK are edging towards closer relationships. They include Bradford and Leeds Metropolitan universities, Glasgow and Strathclyde universities, and Dundee and St Andrews universities.

Sir Martin said it was too early to say which universities would make up any future confederation. Manchester, with one of the UK's largest student populations, is served by Manchester University, Manchester Metropolitan University, Umist and Salford University.

  • Glasgow and Strathclyde universities and Dundee and St Andrews universities have been forging novel but "non-exclusive" links, writes Olga Wojtas .

In 1998, Glasgow and Strathclyde launched Synergy, an alliance recognising each other as "preferred partners" in research. They believe their complementary strengths will help attract investment.

Dundee and St Andrews have won £315,000 from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council for their "promoting partnership" project, which Shefc thinks may be a useful model for other universities.

The two universities, which were a single institution until 1967, have no plans for remarriage, and they are determined that developments should be from the "bottom up".

Good parts in a model that may need glue

From 17th-floor offices, administrators of the University of Wisconsin system can see the dome of the State Capitol building across the city of Madison, writes Philip Fine . It is an appropriate place for the administration, with its mandate to work for the interests of all 26 public universities in the state.

Katharine Lyall, the president of the administrative body, says it offers a strong lobby and much-needed political protection for its members, more than any individual university could. As a district, Madison is consistently outvoted by conservative state legislators, many of whom recall the university's reputation as the Berkeley of the Midwest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "The system provides some buffering for those individual campuses that may not be as popular politically," she says.

In the UW system, clusters of universities are networked with minimal bureaucracy. A single university governing board, the board of regents, oversees the budget for public universities and reports to the state legislature. A strong faculty senate and distinctive university missions offset the apparent concentration of power.

The Wisconsin model has stayed with Sir Howard Newby, incoming chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, beyond a spell as a visiting professor at UW-Madison in 1980-83. In 1999, as head of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Sir Howard joined a group of British higher education delegates visiting Wisconsin. They returned impressed by a model that leaves institutions with autonomy, keeps administration down and allows one of its doctoral universities, UW-Madison, to remain a global player.

Madison spills over with investment. A modern research park a few miles from the campus is about to welcome another tenant. The 40,000-student university, with the stiffest entrance requirements in the system, is the flagship of the 160,000-student network. An annual survey of US universities and colleges by US News and World Report ranks UW-Madison 35th in the country and among the top ten public universities. Its good health has not wavered despite state funding having been clawed back to about 30 per cent of its total budget.

Madison could have struck out separately from the state system of mostly comprehensive universities. But in 1971, the state coerced the four UW campuses to fall in with the teacher training colleges and de facto vocational schools and return some decision-making powers to the UW system. Many faculty resented the move, and it still rankles.

David Musolf, a former student and now secretary of Madison's faculty senate, offers some reasons why many still dislike the system. Claims of reducing infrastructure costs and pooling resources mean little to the university because areas such as payroll programmes and other top-heavy infrastructure costs are usually developed first, he says. "We could always carry our own water, but now we have to go through the system." He believes the administration depends on Madison more than Madison depends on it.

Also, Madison is already part of other groupings of universities, mostly like-minded and research-intensive, with their own sharing of distance education and information technology resources.

UW was incorporated in 1848, four years after Wisconsin became a state. Now the system has 13 four-year and 13 two-year universities that offer every type of education to a population of just under 5 million. Duplication has been curtailed, with over two-thirds of all majors available only in one campus.

For Harvey Kaye, professor of social change and development at UW-Green Bay, entering the system took the shine off his small interdisciplinary college. Another Green Bay professor, Jeff Entwhistle, believes not enough is being made of the university's small size - one of his students told him recently that his theatre history class, with 125 students, was only his third smallest class. Green Bay has been trying to reduce its 22:1 student:teacher ratio with a liberal initiative that the system recently endorsed but government has yet to pass into the budget.

Provost Howard Cohen says Green Bay works better in a system that has been able to coordinate the things a small university could not. Green Bay is leading a distance-education bachelor of nursing programme among five UW campuses.

The Wisconsin public seems to be benefiting from the system. The state ranks above the national averages for state enrolments of high school graduates (33 per cent) and of freshmen going on to the same UW institution for their second year (78.7 per cent). But the area of non-traditional students has declined in the past decade.

Cliff Conrad, professor of higher education at Madison, cites three reasons for Wisconsin's success: a history of offering higher education to a broad spectrum; regents who followed an educational, not a corporate, agenda; and a buoyant economy in the early 1990s. He also highlights the move to act on diversifying institutions' missions, which has made UW-Milwaukee the best-defined urban university he has ever seen.

The British group left Wisconsin impressed by a system that grants small universities a voice but less inspired by the slow pace inherent in a state structure. Still, the model may need more glue to keep all parts intact. In the state governor's budget proposal late last month, the system received only a third of what it had sought. It will have enough to cover additional infrastructure costs such as maintenance and debt payment but little for those things that can keep access high on one campus while ratios stay low on another.

Administrators in Madison may oversee a system that is being tuned into internationally, but their focus is no doubt on events nearer home.

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