Possibly the dullest book in the world

Blessinger, P. and Anchan, J. P. 2015. Democratizing Higher Education: International Comparative Perspectives. Routledge.

I bought this book over a year ago for a princely sum, fresh off the first print run. When it arrived I was disappointed – not only because of the boring black spine with white letters (my bookshelves are ordered by colour) – the content looked pretty dull too.

I’m pretty confident the editors won’t read this (I wrote to Patrick Blessinger once and he didn’t reply), so I’ll be candid. For a start, it reads like the authors themselves weren’t particularly interested in what they were writing. Another major issue is the amount of unnecessary padding. A degree of repetition is understandable – necessary even – if you are setting up a novel and complex argument. If all you want to get across is that higher education systems are generally getting messier (except perhaps in Scandinavia, which is undergoing a sort of higher education spring clean, and Russia, where we’ve really no idea what’s going on), and that an understanding of global trends in HE policy and governance enables those who work in HE to view their practice in context, I don’t think that needs repeated explanation.

sad face

When I met Ron Barnett for tea and hobnobs, he impressed on me the importance of gaining a global perspective on these matters, given my desire to generate novel imaginings of the University. In hindsight, I should have just picked a diverse selection of countries and read about their HE systems on Wikipedia, but I paid good money for this book and I refuse to let it get the better of me. I also refuse to spend any longer on it after today. This post is getting written tonight, then I’m going to watch an hour of Bladerunner (which I’ve been told will fill a gaping chasm in my cultural education), and then I’m going to go to bed. Tomorrow will be a new day, without this book in it.

I’m going to run through the countries & regions covered in the book and just pick out things that were novel and of interest to me.

The US
I knew about the whole community college/public university/private university split (mainly from watching the surreal comedy series Community). What I didn’t know was that racial segregation still has a pronounced legacy in the US HE system, with over 100 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). I enjoyed reading about these on Wikipedia; there are some interesting stats there about student wellbeing, academic support, etc., that shed some light on the attainment gap we have at UAL. It seems that in the US the stratification or clustering of HE institutions into different types is more pronounced (and more accepted?) than in the UK, where standardised metrics (REF/TEF/NSS) nudge us towards homogeneity.

Tuition fees at public universities in the US are similar to the UK, but have been that way for much longer, resulting in student loans being second only to mortgages in consumer debt. Most of the debt is federal, but there are several private student loan companies too (maybe you need a private student loan to attend a private university?!). The state of Oregon wants to pilot a graduate tax scheme called Pay It Forward, but that fact that it would take 20 years to pull in a surplus is apparently making everyone a bit too twitchy. Oh, short-term world.

There is no national education system in Canada; education is governed through the provinces (10) and territories (3). The full cost of university tuition is expensive – around twice that of the UK and US – with government funding focused on providing financial aid to the poorest 30%. Canada’s vast, rural territories are a real challenge to universal access. Long distances are a big issue. Canada led the way in ed tech development, but internet connectivity in rural areas is pretty poor too. First Nations people are underrepresented in Canadian universities with only 8% holding degrees.

I knew about the Bologna process and its aim of making credit frameworks compatible and facilitating the international movement of students. I didn’t know that the European HE Area had set common aims around widening access and quality assurance as well. Given that this is the case, I was a bit shocked to read that only half the Bologna countries systematically monitor participation in HE (by e.g. disability, gender, educational background etc). I guess I’m pretty used to everything being measured here.

I found it quite amusing that the EHEA doesn’t compare the quality of education itself – each country has its own QA measures, so it is the robustness of these quality assurance frameworks that is measured and then compared.  Ha. Measuring the quality of quality. Love it.

Portugal has access strategies in place that lower entry requirements for certain groups. They sound a bit blunt, a bit clunky… but hey, it’s a small country. I like Portugal. Great place.

Scandinavian countries have always had a strong commitment to the public funding of higher education. Saying that, neoliberalism does appear to be peering over the wall, notably in Denmark with the introduction of the Danish Productivity Commission. The rate of participation in HE is growing across Scandinavia and the current trend is towards centralisation, and merging of institutions.

Denmark has seen a massive reversal of the diversification of its HE institutions since the millennium, with large-scale mergers resulting in a shrinkage from around 150 institutions to only seven regional university colleges, nine business colleges and eight universities. Tuition is free for school-leavers, but a parallel system of work-based higher learning is only part-funded by the state.

In Sweden HE courses are free to all European citizens; other applicants have to pay full fees. Norwegian higher education is still free for everyone.

Most Scandinavian students leave home to go to university and, while financial support for students is relatively generous, many work to support themselves. Living costs in Scandinavia are relatively high – with the post-Brexit exchange rate, student living costs are comparable to London.

New Zealand appears to be grappling with similar issues to Canada regarding the educational attainment and social equality of its indigenous people (Maori and Pacific Islanders). New Zealand has eight universities, 20 polytechnics and three Wananga; publicly-owned institutions that provide university level education in a Maori cultural context.

Students contribute to tuition fees at a more modest level than in the UK/US, but this is on the rise as participation increases. Student loans have been interest-free since 2005. There is a shortage of graduate-level jobs. While there is a concern that NZ universities are slipping down the league table rankings due to policies that favour low student fees, modest public investment, and increased participation, the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) is primarily concerned with the influence of universities on the economy.

South Africa
The South African HE system underwent complete restructuring since the end of Apartheid in 1994 and the dissolution of the Black (‘Bantu’) Education Act. Old institutions have merged and new comprehensive colleges have been set up. The country is aiming for a differentiated system of universities and community colleges, similar to the US, but the system remains unstable and the prognosis is uncertain. Internet connectivity is an issue.

Higher education has always been under state control in Russia. There have been periods of greater independence, for example following perestroika from 1985 to the 1990s. The chapter on Russia makes frequent allusions to ‘distorted measurements’ and gaps between official data and reality. The mobility of students between states is restricted because of the funding infrastructure, and international mobility is hampered by a number of factors, including money and language as well as differences in curriculum and credit transfer. 50% of students study on correspondence courses. Participation is decreasing, as is the number of higher education institutions. Closures and mergers are being executed in line with criteria that sound rather more absurd than those of the TEF. So we should count ourselves lucky, hey?

Hong Kong
High demand for undergraduate study in Hong Kong has resulted in a second tier of institutions offering sub-degrees; the limited number of publicly-funded institutions offering these having higher status than those requiring self-financing. This has some similarities with the community college system in the US, and the growth of community colleges in India.

Malaysia appears to have gone the whole hog with expanding and marketising its higher education system. The rhetoric in this chapter is very familiar – it is all about excellence and is unashamedly corporate.

In the penultimate chapter, Blessinger links back to Dewey’s seminal work Democracy and Education, I guess to make some sort of justification of why it is right and proper that higher education should be moving in the direction it is. He argues that as our social systems become more complex and interconnected, we need more formal, prolonged systems of learning to function properly within them.

And that’s about as much as I can take of this book.

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