Report attacks US standards

September 1, 2006

Universities fight charges that the learning they provide is poor and too costly, says Jon Marcus

US universities and colleges expect that a government report this month will criticise the price and the effectiveness of higher education and will recommend changes to force down costs and increase access and accountability.

The Bush Administration is moving to implement many of the recommendations before the final draft of the report is out, while university associations are mobilising opposition.

The report is the work of the National Commission on the Future of Higher Education, set up this year to address America's relative slide in higher education attainment compared with other industrialised nations. Many students graduate without the skills employers say they need.

The proportion of the world's science and engineering graduates is projected to fall to 15 per cent by 2010, compared with 50 per cent in 1970.

Last June, Margaret Spellings, the US Education Secretary, told education ministers from countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: "In launching this commission, we recognised that to remain a quality system we had to ask the tough questions and anticipate necessary changes that can and must be made if we are to have a robust system 50 years from now."

US higher education needs to improve in dramatic ways, the latest draft of the commission's report says. Past attainments have encouraged complacency, and universities are increasingly risk averse and, at times, self-satisfied and unduly expensive, it adds.

That harsh language was toned down from earlier drafts after universities objected to being accused of letting standards slip in the undergraduate curriculum and allowing to develop a campus culture that seemed to promote underachievement, anti-intellectualism and excessive socialising. The commission also deleted references to spending increases being driven by competition for prestige and to faculty members focusing on research over teaching; and it added a clause acknowledging that state budget cuts and red tape imposed by national and state Government contributed to operating costs.

But higher education groups remain irate and are digging in for a fight. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education and one of the commission's 19 members, is refusing to sign its report because, he said, it blames the sector for problems that have many other causes, such as poor preparation of students in primary and secondary schools.

"Beyond my disagreement over some recommendations, it is my belief that our solutions should be built on the strengths of higher education rather than on inferences that could project a false sense of crisis," Dr Ward said.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents private universities, objected to a proposal that student outcomes be tracked and schools be held more accountable by having to publish data measuring their successes or shortcomings.

David Warren, the association's president, said the Government had enough statistics to help families compare universities. The rich variety of US institutions of higher education could not be captured by a single measure, he said.

The 1,000-member Association of American Colleges and Universities protested that the recommendations would, if followed, significantly damage the quality of learning for many college students. In particular, the group complained that the commission was calling for standardised tests to assess students' achievements without specifying what it is that students ought to know.

US universities valued their independence, said Richard Vedder, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much , who also was a member of the commission. "You have people who argue that its none of your business what we do, the American individualistic view that we have the right to conduct our affairs without interference from anyone. But these universities are receiving vast amounts of financial support from the Government. The people who are funding this have some right to information, and the universities should be held more accountable than they have been in the past."

Dr Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, said institutions, especially the private establishments, were afraid of the accountability proposal. "It may develop that there's relatively little going on at these schools in the way of learning. But if universities are going to maintain their credibility, they're going to have to be more accountable."

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