Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Forces Affecting Change in Higher Ed

We're going through a strategic planning exercise at my university now. The president's piece is more or less done and now we are waiting on the various campuses for them to produce their parts. It will be interesting to see what will be produced. It will also be interesting to observe how much the strategic plan become part of the rhetoric of the campus administration. A well done plan can influence our future direction by producing themes to wrap activities around. I'm particularly interested to see if learning technology will be perceived as of strategic importance. That seems to be the case at some institutions, University of Central Florida and North Carolina State University come to mind. But it doesn't seems to be the case at peer institutions, even when they have a strategic plan. Ask people outside the IT area about the role of IT and they'll give you a funny look. That tells a lot.r

Today's Chronicle has a piece on the revised Higher Education Bill and the role of Accreditation. Apparently those representing Higher Ed, such as Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education and those representing the accrediting bodies, such as Judith Eaton of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, like the revised bill in that it has toned down the publicness of the accreditation process. The article has a quote from Eaton to the effect that if the process is too open then the universities, such as mine, won't be forthcoming with the accreditors about internal issues for fear they will turn into political footballs. I saw Terry Hartle present when I was at the Frye Institute and he impressed me as a thoughtful and sensible advocate. So I take the point seriously. But my idealistic half is chagrined that we can't make the issues more open. Higher Ed, after all, is supposed to champion debate and differences in point of view. Perhaps we can do that for the situation in the middle east and affirmative action, etc. But apparently we can't do it with regard to our own business practice because those outside higher ed may react in pernicious ways (cut funding, impose unrealistic further regulation, etc.).

Another outside force is competition. It can exert pressure both directly, students have alternative institutions that are viable for them to attend, and indirectly, by providing alternative models to our approach. My campus seemingly is not suffering from direct competition at present. We are swelling with new students and haze been the past few years. If anything, our goal is to cut back on the size of the entering class, since our state subsidy does not vary with the number of students and our facilities are aimed at a certain sized student population. This, of course, is a nice position to be in because it suggests that tuition can be raised without pushing enrollments below target.

But simultaneously we are suffering from tight budgets and here looking at the competition for alternative approaches is instructive. Take a look at this page from the University of Phoenix describing its program offerings and its course offerings in the humanities. To get a better sense of what information is being conveyed contrast that page with this one from my campus which shows a much larger set of programs indicating a far greater variety of offerings. Phoenix has been accused of practicing a cherry picking strategy - concentrating on programs for which there is high demand by students and for which they think they can produce a degree that has value in the marketplace. Their undergraduate offerings focus on business areas and information technology. It is interesting to see that they have nothing at the undergraduate level in Education, but do offer programs in Education at the masters level.

As we know, Phoenix has a model akin to the model of the large Open Universities where a course is produced and then instructors are trained to teach that course, staying pretty much on script, and where the instructors get a substantial amount of preparation in how to teach. Obviously, that is quite different from what we do. I'm not ready to argue that we should start imitating Phoenix but it certainly serves to contrast with what we do and focusing just on general education, perhaps we need to take a closer look.

There is considerable reason to expect higher ed in dealing with undergraduate education, particularly at the public research university level, to stay in a holding pattern for some time to come. None of the forces for change appear particularly strong at present. I wonder if I'm reading the tea leaves properly.

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