OECD’s Dirk Van Damme says debate on Ahelo was ‘low quality’

Super-selective institutions do not always offer value in teaching and learning, THE World Academic Summit hears 

October 2, 2015
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Fear factor: some elite institutions may be loath to be compared to less selective, more ‘dynamic’ institutions, a sector expert suggests

University leaders’ fears over the quality of their institutions is “not a valid excuse” for rejecting new measurements of teaching and learning, according to an education expert at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Dirk Van Damme, head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division at the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills, said institutions’ concern around their performance was a “tempting hypothesis” to explain why they dismiss attempts to introduce new measures, but added that he has been “a bit shocked by the low intellectual quality and scientific quality” of the debate from universities.

“Non-transparency is not a better option in the long run. The costs could exceed the short-term benefits,” he warned. “The future progress of universities will come from the outcome of better and more visible quality improvements in teaching and learning.”

Last month, the OECD’s director for education and skills, Andreas Schleicher, confirmed to Times Higher Education that its Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (Ahelo) project for measuring student learning – billed as a university equivalent of its Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests for schools – would not be launched at present following “very high” resistance, particularly from elite institutions. He added that an “insufficient” number of governments were also willing to run with the project.

Professor Van Damme told delegates at Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit in Melbourne on 2 October, when answering questions following a speech titled “Assessing teaching and learning excellence as a game-changer in higher education”, that he could “imagine some universities have a kind of fear [around being measured] but I don’t think this is a valid excuse”.

When asked whether top institutions are resistant to new measures because they are afraid of the results, Professor Van Damme said: “It’s a tempting hypothesis that those institutions in those countries with the most to lose are resisting the most. I actually don’t have a lot of evidence to support that, though. What we have seen is less opposition from countries who might have something to win. But I am a bit hesitant to say this is the cause of the resistance to something like Ahelo.”

He added that there is some research to say that universities that are “severely selecting students” do not offer much value in teaching and learning once students arrive.

“I believe the most dynamic set of universities, like the Swiss or German institutions which are also rising up the rankings, are less selective and add a lot of value. An assessment in teaching and learning would bring these kinds of differences to the fore,” he said.

He suggested that universities needed to demonstrate their worth as they “no longer have a very strong voice in the debate in the economy and corporate sector on what kind of skills are needed for the 21st century. And that’s worrying.”

Meanwhile, Julia Middleton, founder of Common Purpose, a charitable trust that runs leadership training programmes, told the conference that some of the more selective universities are failing to give students a rounded education that prepares them for the modern economy.

"Elite universities are missing a trick that is not being missed by non-elite universities," she said, in that they “fail to develop students into leaders with cultural intelligence”.


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