National demands ‘force universities away from local communities’

Scholars argue swelling targets for teaching and research are making it harder for universities to have a regional impact

January 6, 2018
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Pulled in two directions: scholars working with their region ‘carry the whiff of suspicion’

Governments across the world are preventing universities from rejuvenating their local economies and communities by forcing them to perform against national research and teaching targets, scholars have warned.

Particularly in the aftermath of the shock votes for Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016, universities in cities from Baltimore to Sheffield have been keen to show that they are getting outside their campuses and helping those who have been “left behind”.

But central government policies demanding international research “excellence”, low student dropout rates and a focus on subjects of national importance mean that a regional focus is being “crowded out” by ever more pressing demands from above, according to an analysis by researchers from across Europe.

One of the authors, Paul Benneworth, a senior researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, said that, despite a long history of serving regional needs, universities from the 1980s onwards have increasingly had to deliver against national targets in a “Faustian pact” to secure the funds they need.

“Regional has come to be seen as second class, and the national has become associated with ‘excellence’” in teaching and research, he said. At the same time, global rankings have ramped up the pressure to overlook local needs in favour of international benchmarks, he added.

Universities had now internalised these ideas and priorities, he continued. Scholars doing research with their local region “carry the whiff of suspicion” that they are not up to an international standard and, in one university in Sweden, Dr Benneworth discovered that researchers would “cringe” at the prospect of doing research funded by local hospitals. Such an approach was “a disaster not just for society, but also for the universities”.

Political scientists, for example, had only belatedly started writing about “fake news” and distrust long present in their communities because international journals had until recently not been interested in the subject, he argued.

The trend was not a uniform one across the globe, he added. European and emerging Asian “tiger” economies had particularly nationalised education systems, Dr Benneworth said.

German universities were now incentivised to pursue research “excellence” in order to benefit from the country’s multibillion-euro excellence initiative, he pointed out, while in France the government was attempting to reform university admissions – making entrance less of a certainty for weaker students – partly in the name of internationally “excellent” teaching. In the US, however, there was a “long tradition of very variegated institutions”, such as community colleges, that do not attempt to reach “global excellence”, he said.

A competitive market for students, in which universities are financially punished for dropouts, means that institutions try to recruit the “most straightforward students”, typically from “higher socio-economic backgrounds”, argues the analysis, “National higher education policies challenging universities’ regional engagement activities”, published in the journal Ekonomiaz.

But students with less academic backgrounds who need more support “typically can have the greatest regional benefit, because of their tendency to remain in their home regions after graduation, thereby boosting local capital formation”, the authors argue.

Governments had also merged universities in pursuit of “world-class” research centres, the article warns, often at the expense of a regional focus. Norway has cut the number of state-run institutions from 33 to 21 over the past decade, with more than half of students now enrolled at eight public universities, it points out.

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