By Paul Ashwin
Globally participation in Higher Education is rising rapidly. UNESCO figures for enrolment in tertiary education show that globally, participation rose from 19% in 2000 to 32% in 2012. It is also increasingly an international phenomenon; for example, the number of students studying abroad more than doubled from 2.1m in 2000 to 4.5m in 2012.
The increasing numbers of students internationally has contributed to greater scrutiny of higher education, as it has become a key focus of national and international policy makers. This scrutiny has led to unparalleled information about HE. This greater information presents higher education researchers with both challenges and possibilities because it both tells us more about higher education whilst also simplifying its complexities.
If we take the quality of higher as an example, the recent Yerevan Communiqué from EU Higher Education Ministers declared that “Enhancing the quality and relevance of teaching and learning is the main mission of the EHEA”. This both elevates the status of teaching and learning whilst also raising pressing questions about how we judge the quality of teaching in higher education.
Positions in national and international higher education league tables have become a dominant way of representing this quality. Their attraction is understandable: they travel across a number of contexts and audiences as well as having resonance for prospective students and their families, employers, policy makers, academics and universities, and international bodies. However, their shortcomings are equally obvious: they tend to involve unrelated and incomparable measures that are brought together into a single score by algorithms and weightings that lack any statistical credibility. Crucially, the stability at the top of the league tables reinforces privilege: higher status institutions tend to take in a much greater proportion of privileged students. League tables strongly and wrongly suggest that students who have been to these institutions have received a higher quality education. So even as league tables give us more information about higher education, they are distorting our understanding of its quality. It also distorts our understanding of teaching: making it about history and prestige rather than about the ways in which students are given access to powerful knowledge.
Given the problems with League Tables, another attractive way of examining quality is to compare students’ learning outcomes from higher education. The idea here is that comparisons of the quality of higher education are based on what students can actually do when they graduate. This raises questions about the extent to which student learning outcomes can be standardised across national and disciplinary boundaries and the extent to which they should reflect the particular and authentic achievements of individual students. There are strong pressures for standardisation in order to allow the measurement of the performance of higher education institutions, and to ensure equitable higher education for all students regardless of which institution they study in. The legitimacy of these demands needs to be recognised given the investments that societies and students make in higher education.
On the other side of this tension, is the view that what is higher about higher education is the personal relationship that students develop with disciplinary and professional knowledge. It is this which provides the transformative aspects of higher education that is so highly valued by students, governments and societies. Thus if standardisation leads to a focus on identifying outcomes that are measurable across contexts rather than outcomes that reflect the way in which students’ identities are transformed by their engagement with disciplinary and professional knowledge, then the danger is that we lose more than we gain.
The danger of the increased global information about higher education is that the individual, durable and stable elements of higher education that can be easily measured are given a greater value than those that are collective, complex, changing and country-specific. As higher education researchers, we need to engage with such tensions critically, constructively, collectively and courageously. Critically because we need to challenge the tendency to value only what is measurable and carefully identify the ways in which different simplifications, including our own, offer a partial picture of the world’s complexity. Constructively because we need to respect and take seriously the concerns of those both inside and outside of higher education research with whom we may strongly disagree. In doing so, we need to offer alternatives ways of addressing these concerns rather than simply dismissing them through critique. Collectively because we need to recognise and emphasise that the value of higher education research comes from the communal bodies of knowledge that it produces rather than individual researchers or projects. Courageously because our contribution to higher education research is always in the process of becoming. This means that our successes and failures are temporary and, as a community, we need to continually work to show the value of what higher education research can offer. This requires us not to underestimate the challenges involved in offering all students a transformative higher education experience but also not to forget the possibilities offered by the power of higher education to transform students’ understanding of the world and their position within it.
Paul Ashwin is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Lancaster