Launch of The Higher Education Task Force Report

Wednesday, March 1, 2000 Omni Shoreham Hotel, Regency Ballroom, Washington, D.C.
Quentin Thompson, Education Consultant

I've watched the Bank develop its own policies towards education, higher education in particular, and I have to say that of the policy documents and policy-oriented documents that the Bank has produced or been responsible for in some way on higher education, this is by far the best. I think it's balanced and not value laden, unlike some of the previous ones. I think it's clearly written by people who understand education, as opposed to some of the previous documents. I think it puts rate of return in its proper place, which is about 3 paragraphs in the middle of a 90 page document. I think it emphasizes the other contributions that education makes to the development of civilized society, to culture and so on. I think it rejects correctly the over-simplistic view that markets can solve all problems, and I very much welcome the statements about general education at the end there. I don't think that's heretical, I think it's great.

But I'd like to think of it as a discussion document, as Professor Rosovsky said. This is the beginning of a discussion rather than the end, and I hope that's how the authors view it. And in that spirit, I'd like to make five creative suggestions:

My first point is that I think there needs to be more thinking and clarity on the public/private split - on both the public/private splits - the split on provision and the split on funding. The split on provision is not a clear distinction any more; it's not a clear dichotomy. If you think of the corporatized public universities - the distinction between them and the not-for-profit private universities is very very slender. It may be more useful not to think of simply public/private, but to think of public, totally-owned, dominated bureaucratic universities on the one hand, and public universities that have been subject to some form of corporatisation, now operating on a semi-autonomous or sometimes a totally autonomous basis, but still public in some way.

I speak with some feeling on this, because it's always quite difficult as a Brit to describe what the British universities are - are they public or are they private? It's not an easy question to answer. Further, the private not-for-profits in some countries, in some of the Latin America countries for example, are now maintaining that since they're operating on exactly the same principles as some of the public universities, why shouldn't they be funded in the same way as the public universities? And it's not a bad question. So I think that the public/private distinction is too simple.

The second distinction of public/private is on funding: although one of the speakers said the question of financing is dealt with extensively in the literature, there is one aspect of financing that is not dealt with in the literature, and that's the mechanism by which public financing reaches the institutions. That seems to me to be a neglected area. It can be used very effectively as a policy tool for influencing the direction of a system. It can be used, for example, to encourage mergers between institutions, desperately needed in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. And the funding mechanism can also be used as a mirror for the market. There are many different ways of approaching the funding mechanism as a policy device. I think that point could do with some more development.

My second point concerns research. Here I'm in danger of having tomato juice poured over me. I think it's important to distinguish between the concept of scholarship and the concept of research. Scholarship is the work that's necessary to enable good teaching to take place, and research is extra work of a research nature that isn't necessary for teaching but is desirable.

I like the idea of a strategy and a stratification of a system of research but a little bit more thought could be given to the idea that some countries may not need the top stratosphere - the research-based universities. Not all countries can afford research-based universities. It's worthwhile making the point and developing the theme that it's perfectly acceptable for a country not to have research-based universities. And there, I do agree with Dr Levi's point about top-down. The model held of research and the concept of research is that of a prestigious academic university. There are many universities where that's not appropriate - particularly where there's a danger of giving the message to individual members of academic staff that you're only a proper academic if you undertake research. That just isn't true.

My third point concerns accountability. Accountability with its two paragraphs is under-emphasized compared with the rate of return and its three paragraphs. I think as universities in developing countries move towards greater autonomy, so the concept of accountability becomes much more important. It's not a topic that has been adequately explored in my point of view. Everyone pays lip-service to it, but what does it really mean? How is the university to be held accountable? To whom is it to be held accountable? When you talk about monitoring and rewarding performance - and incidentally what about applying sanctions for poor performance as well as rewarding good performance - who's going to do that? How is performance to be measured? What are the variables we're talking about here, and particularly about quality and quality assurance approaches?

My fourth point is on governance and management. I agree it is the largest internal weakness of the system and here I have to say, Professor Rosovsky, it's not only the largest weakness in the 80% of world's universities covered by your report, but it's also the largest weakness in the 20% that weren't (ie in developed countries). Here we're talking about individual rights and responsibilities. I think there's a danger, not in your document, but in developing - and developed - countries, of emphasizing rights and underplaying responsibilities. Individual accountability is critical within the university: for example, the use of time; for example the achievement of outputs; for example the appraisal of performance.

Moonlighting; yes I can see the advantage of moonlighting. I can also see big disadvantages. And it depends on the extent to which the individual academic is intended to be a full-time member of staff. Some faculties can allow their staff to moonlight and some can't - or some faculties don't have the facilities to do it - which is unfair. So moonlighting needs to have a different name. It's called left-hand work in Vietnam which I think is rather intriguing - Halsey Beemer says may be something to do with sinister academics. But the concept of moonlighting can be made respectable as long as the income generated by the moonlighting is seen to be income belonging to the university rather than to the individual academic. Then there's nothing wrong with it at all. And as long as that income is somehow shared fairly between those who can undertake such work and those who can't - either because they're undertaking duties for the university or because their own field does not lend itself to such work. But some discussion of that as a concept is worthwhile.

The other internal governance and management point which certainly applies to universities in developed as well as in developing countries is the question of internal efficiency. Just as an example, staff/student ratios in many developing countries are higher than they are in developed countries - which seems odd. Certainly in universities in some of the countries in which I've been working, it would be possible for each individual member of staff to do five times as much work for the university and to be paid five times as much enabling the university to cope with only one fifth of the staff. That would improve quality without increasing the cost, because the best fifth should be retained.

My fifth and final point is also Dr Levi's: how do we get there from here? It would be a very helpful discussion to debate the next steps - how countries can use models that are developed from this in their own thinking.

I'm sure there's an awful lot more to talk about but I'm glad that you view this as a start. I look forward to the dialogue.