Universities across the world must collect and share more sophisticated data to prove their public value or risk governments, students and industry disengaging from the sector.
That is the stark warning from Hamish Coates, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, who said the “trust us” argument used by higher education institutions in response to questions of their worth has “failed”.
“We don’t see higher education institutions leading the fight to improve how they can dictate their value to the public. That’s pretty shocking,” he said, adding that “pretending that the future is not going to require more demonstration of value is a losing game”.
Professor Coates was speaking to Times Higher Education following the recent publication of his book The Market for Learning and the chapter “Reporting alternatives: Future transparency mechanisms for higher education” in the book Global Rankings and the Geopolitics of Higher Education, edited by Ellen Hazelkorn.
In the chapter he warns of a potential future in which “higher education as we know it is shut down”.
“Students stop participating, governments withdraw funding, industry stops investing and institutions cease cross-subsidising. Higher education systems have morphed into competitive markets in which institutions have failed to prove value, and individuals are frugal and disillusioned consumers,” he writes.
However, he adds that higher education can “avoid such catastrophe, by provoking the emergence of metrics that go wider and deeper, and the implementation of more dynamic reporting mechanisms” such as “personalised algorithms” that are “nuanced to contexts” and an individual's “aspirations and learning”.
Speaking to THE, Professor Coates said universities need to “move away” from thinking that “research excellence drives student numbers which drives education profits which drives research excellence” and stop “chasing short-term reputation” that is not related to their core business.
“That’s a very useful logic for about 5 per cent of the higher education institutions around the world. The other 95 per cent need to concentrate on much more sophisticated conceptualisations of mission and value and appropriate ways of measuring and reporting them,” he said.
“In the future what we’ll see is people starting to want to know information that tells them they’re getting a good return of investment.”
He said commercial firms in the private for-profit sector have been very successful at doing this but most of the information that is currently published about universities is “completely unregulated”. He suggested that an independent body could be in charge of collecting and reporting data from institutions.
“This is not just about making higher education institutions more accountable. They make an enormous contribution to society but it’s not [explained],” he said.
“It’s as much to demonstrate the value of higher education as it is to help people make well-informed decisions.”