Launch of The Higher Education Task Force Report

Wednesday, March 1, 2000 Omni Shoreham Hotel, Regency Ballroom, Washington, D.C.

Professor Daniel Levy, University at Albany, State University of New York
Respondent to presentations made by the Task Force members

I am honored to participate in this session with such distinguished people. Indeed I am following giants. With all due respect to your introductory remarks, Jamil, I am not only last but very much least. That's one of the reasons why I hesitated to accept the opportunity to comment on this paper. Another reason why I hesitated was that quite frankly I had - and continue to have - certain reservations about the paper. I'll acknowledge perhaps I'm too wedded to my own efforts on the Inter-American Development Bank Strategy Paper for Higher Education, but I was assured by the organizers of this session that I had a role here to try to contribute to a frank interchange of ideas.

This morning when I was coming down on the plane from Albany, they gave us a choice of juice. I asked for tomato juice. The flight attendant spilled it on me. Now in the wilds of up-state New York, we throw tomato juice on skunks to keep down the smell that they give off, and I'm a little bit afraid that at the end of my remarks you'll be looking for gallons of tomato juice. But I also think that would be an exaggerated response because I'd like to try and keep in context that I agree with almost everything that was said here today, and I agree in some large measure with the great majority of things said in the report.

My role here is to concentrate on what I have reservations about - and that gives an unbalanced impression of what I think of the report. So my theme here is that the document has great policy and political value, and we need to consider how to move ahead toward the next step of practical policy. In this I fear I'm slightly out of step with one of the concluding remarks of the report, which implored us to waste no time. Of course, nobody wants to waste time, but I do sense the need for another level in between the generic very powerful level of the report, and a level of policy itself.

Certain supplementary things are needed in levels of analysis. And some of the leads for this can come from the document itself. In other respects some of the generic statements in the document can mislead. First I will say a bit about what I think the report does and does not do, second what I take to be its basic approach to reform, and third, what I think needs to be added to - not substituted for, but added - to that basic approach to reform.

I needn't say much about how important and good the report is because that's already been outlined. I do think the breadth is enormous. I know of no other single document on higher education in the developing world that has this sort of breadth, and to capture such generally correct principles in one paper so well organized and so well written is truly commendable. The data assembled are probably again unmatched and could be of great value.

But I think the main value of the report is a political value of exhortation. The reinstallation of higher education as essential to development is a very welcome message indeed, and backed by the prestigious figures and institutions surrounding this report the document will undoubtedly serve as a banner of attention for reform, and will educate both policy-makers and public alike about what I might call the received wisdom about what should be done in higher education. So all this has enormous value.

We need to add to that by thinking more about what we need to do next. And although I recognize that the document is not a piece of scholarship per se, but rather a policy document that mixes in scholarship, I do think that we might be served by looking more at - or citing more - the literature on developing countries and higher education which I don't take to be that inconsiderable. I think that we might look more to challenge some of the conventional thinking that is found there. The great example of that in this report is undoubtedly challenging the literature that dismisses the social returns that can be produced through good higher education.

I think we need more about what to challenge. For me personally, the report presents a dizzying array of goals, of desirable futures, with which I'm mostly in accordance and I think that these serve a very useful purpose - but I think they only go so far.

Now to the second point - the document's basic approach to policy. In this respect it has something of a pattern that we often see in policy reports on higher education in developing countries: a two-fold approach. One: diagnosis which is overwhelmingly negative; and two: prescription, which because the diagnosis is so negative, comes largely from above and from the outside.

That might be a characterization which would be rejected by the office of the report. But the diagnosis is overwhelming about problems and travails -- but I would like to rate performance by more discriminating criteria of what is reasonable to expect in performance.

We are told, for example, that access is low. That statement is undeniably true. It can also be undeniably false in some cases and it depends on one's criteria. We might also try more to emphasize examples where progress has been made, putting somewhat less emphasis on where progress has not been made.

There has been great change in a number of respects and I would more like us to build from that change, than to bring in ideas from the outside. The strongest part of the document in this respect comes in the number of the boxes. Five of the ten boxes are about considerable policy change taking place. I welcome them and I think that they could be jumping off points for what to do.

When I say that many of the ideas come from above, I do think the document is overly wedded to above, in the sense of what is the conventional academic quality at the leading international institutions. I think this has relevance for the developing world, I'm glad that its included, but I also think it can be misleading about what is possible and even what we should aim for in terms of value added to for real institutions in real places with limited resources all the way round.

Yes, we can talk about international standards of accreditation but I don't know if international standards of accreditation is what we need in most developing countries at this point. We should talk more about value added and the number of ways especially recognizing that a system's move will vary from 2% in access levels to 40% in access levels. If we're at 40% access levels, the great majority will be in institutions that are not, cannot, and should not pretend to be, institutions of the academic elite. The document is stronger when it talks about higher education than when it lapses and talks about universities.

I also think that the reform comes a bit too much from above in the sense that it looks for too much from government. I congratulate the office of the report for taking such a strong stance against centrally controlled systems, but I also think the report almost has a blanket harshness about unplanned differentiation and growth, describing it as chaotic. It is often chaotic - but so too are national plans and systems that stem from systemic identification of the public interest and strategic visions, they too are often problems. What we need is a mix. I doubt if anyone would disagree with that.

I'm quibbling then with a certain directional tone of the report, which for me has a greater faith in what government is likely to do than I see warranted by the diagnosis in the report itself.

If we want more competition for research moneys, let us talk about what's happened in Brazil. If we want more faculty mobility, let's look at what's happening among leading private institutions in Mexico. Much more can be learned across regions. A number of regions have a lot to learn about private higher education, good and bad from the examples we see in Asia and Latin America where there has been so much private higher education.

I also think that in a number of cases the report tends to be unduly harsh about indigenous alternatives, which I would describe as hybrids. They are blasted for turning out to be much less than things that are better than realistic alternatives - for example moonlighting is decried in the report. Well, there are reasons to decry it, against certain ideals. I think it is a second best, but I also think it's a very positive thing when very good professors from some universities present themselves at other places and give opportunities to students there.

Similarly, franchise universities: by all means blast them for all the things they do wrong, but also try to investigate why they are wrong and what might come of it, and how we might try to coax an improvement in what they give.

And lastly, differentiation. I think one of the strong points of the report is that it not only identifies differentiation, but it endorses it - and it even has the courage to endorse what it calls stratification, which is rare in a political report of this nature. I have a personal liking for the section on general higher education. I know in the Inter-American Development Bank report that was one of the most cherished parts for us.

But although the report endorses differentiation, it often puts forth what it calls principles for all, which I often think are not really best principles for all, but rather principles for some or many. In the example of governance, many of the principles for all are good principles for academic leadership institutions, ruled largely through shared governance - policy-making locus within institutions - rather than in a state or market. I think all this is very suitable for academic leadership institutions and functions, but I don't think it's necessarily so suitable for much of the rest of higher education.

Similarly, other items of governance are better for other kinds of higher education than for the academic leadership function. Direct accountability and clear professional standards could be examples there.

So in conclusion, and returning to the note of balance which is my overall impression of the report, I think the document serves an indispensable function in galvanizing opinion and in showing generally orienting purposes and principles. To carry that forth and put the document into practice, we need to continue to develop more differentiated criteria and ideas, many of which can be adapted from progress and practice to date in developing countries themselves.