Profit and schloss account

February 13, 1998

FOR 50 years the Salzburg Seminar has been a centre of intellectual exchange and debate for the world's emerging leaders. Launched in 1947 by three Harvard students, the seminar has sent more than 18,000 young men and women from more than 125 countries to Salzburg for the free interchange of ideas among people who will become leaders of their countries and professions.

In late 1996 the seminar launched The Project. Last month in Salzburg, in the splendour of the 18th-century Schloss Leopolds-kron, more than 60 university presidents, rectors and senior higher education officials met for four days to discuss issues of higher education reform in Russia, Europe and North America.

Throughout the world universities are in a state of reform, adapting to external influences and shifting demographics, responding to new and different constituencies, in many cases in the context of a new civil society and market economy. In some cases the changes are of seismic proportions. The need for discussion across national and regional boundaries is great and timely. Salzburg provides a forum in which senior administrators and officials from target regions can search for possible solutions to issues of governance, administration, management and finance. Last month's convocation was to examine the effect of The Project during its first year and review the programme for 1998.

During 1997 the project held a plenary meeting of senior officials in higher education and three symposia, two for Eastern and Central European universities and one for Russian universities. Delegates met colleagues from Western European and North American universities. At each symposium three themes form the basis for discussions: university management and finance; academic structure and governance within the university; and meeting the needs of students, and the role of students in institutional affairs.

Discussions in Salzburg last year also made clear the necessity of adding two more subjects: technology and the role of the university in the emerging civil society.

Through the plenary presentations, workshop discussions and materials prepared in advance, a wide range of conclusions and recommendations was reached.

This year some of the 1997 programmes will be repeated and new initiatives added in response to needs expressed by members of the advisory committee and other participants. The focus will shift from defining broad issues and problems to focusing more directly on regional specific issues.

For example, the programme on university management and leadership for rectors and vice rectors of Russian universities, consisting of symposia to be held in Salzburg in June and late November/early December in cooperation with the Conference of European Rectors, will define its agenda more narrowly than in 1997. The June symposium will focus on the role of universities in the social, economic and political development of the area and will bring together delegations representing higher education, local and regional government, industry, trade associations and other groups from Voronezh, Novosibirsk and Kazan. November's, on specific management and leadership techniques for mid-level university administrators, will provide management and leadership training to mid-level university administrators of both state and newly established non-state universities in Russia.

Despite the broad range of countries and institutions represented, there has been a remarkable convergence among participants as to the problems, if not the specific solutions. Legislation in many of the target countries, for example, guarantees free university education to all citizens. Constraints on these systems are directly related to their funding source, which in the cases of most participants means the government. Faced with a wide range of financial situations, and in some cases real crisis, many universities are seeing large cuts in funding with little or no option for making up the difference.

For some of them the question that presents itself most forcefully is not how to reform but how to survive. With little or no experience in accounting and budget management; universities that were formerly directed from above, by ministries, are now seeing less money but getting more responsibility for allocation, all the while still feeling pressures from society to maintain standards and increase quality.

Another topic that affects universities everywhere is the increasing number of non-traditional students, including older students, those with full-time jobs and those seeking degrees through correspondence from remote locations.

This last group is related to another topic of concern -Jthe exponential growth of information technology. This presents new problems for institutions, both in the east and the west, as regards budgeting: universities lack the funds to keep up with international standards in hardware and software technology, the training specialists and the support systems such as adequate telephone lines, electrical sources and even climate control.

Steps forward in the West become giant leaps in Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. These universities come from the perspective of a totalitarian system where horizontal relationships were discouraged in favour of vertical relationships between the centre and all institutions. They are not used to having direct relationships with civil society.

An important subject of The Project, therefore, is the role of the university in the emerging civil society. Questions arise of how to best serve the student and of the purpose of the university in continuing its mission of educating and serving this ideal of civil society.

Rapid reform of university systems will continue to take place into the next century and will be a central factor in globalisation, emerging economies, international cooperation and the character of the next generation. The Project seeks to create a forum for ongoing discussion and partnership between universities in nations with very different means but ultimately the same goal.

Clearly The Project is limited in the audience it can reach. But if, in the words of seminar president Olin Robison, each participant at a Project gathering takes only one idea and implements it at his or her university, The Project will be considered a success.

Scott Atherton is deputy director of the Salzburg Seminar's Project, based at Middlebury University, Vermont, United States.

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