What Effect Is the Economic Crisis Really Having on Higher Education?

A march in 2009 to protest the Irish government's handling of the economic crisis.

Over the last two decades Ireland has experienced a remarkable transformation in fortunes. The boom years of the “Celtic Tiger” made Ireland the poster child of the 2000s. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, Ireland became the symbol of economic collapse, before being rescued by the “troika” of the IMF, European Commission, and European Central Bank.

Our higher-education institutions, which climbed slowly but consistently upwards in world rankings to great public acclaim, plummeted last year. In 2009, we had two universities in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings; now we have just one in the new QS Top Universities Ranking. All eight of our major higher-education institutions were firmly within the top 500–equivalent to the top 3 percent of universities worldwide–but now no longer. Our national reputation has taken a hammering. Student numbers are rising and there is a real squeeze on resources. But then, other rankings emerge: the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research for Universitas 21 ranks Irish higher education 16th in the world out of 48 countries, and 12th on resources, and both QS and Times Higher Education produce new rankings of new universities which show positive results for Ireland. What’s going on?

The adjustment phase of the global economic crisis is putting great pressure on higher education to demonstrate greater relevance to, and better value for, individuals and society. The continuing shift to the knowledge-based economy, and the rising demand for and costs of higher education, are occurring at the same time that many governments face serious financial strain–with knock-on effects on higher-education budgets. Many of these challenges were manifest decades ago; but the confluence of factors associated with the new economic reality has intensified their impact. It has become commonplace to say that higher education needs to “do more with less,” but are the changes a sign of a profound paradigm shift in our model for mass higher education or simply a transitory moment?

University presidents and faculty point to falling quality; I’m told “there are now five students in the lab where there used to be only two”–but we know that staff/student ratio is not a meaningful indicator of educational quality. And in any case, this university recruits the smartest students in the country. A researcher says she is overworked–but how is this demonstrated to the satisfaction of the parliamentary public accounts committee which is looking for firmer evidence of value-for-money? Facilities are closed, library purchases restricted, and student services reduced–but the student survey at my own institution rates satisfaction at over 80 percent. A survey by the American Council on Education in 2009 found that 50 percent of American chief academic officers said insufficient funds were a source of frustration–but wouldn’t we be surprised if they said otherwise?

Except for anecdotal accounts, we have a poor understanding of what is actually happening in higher education: on the extent of structural adjustment taking place, and on the impact on the mission of higher education, on students and educational quality, on research and engagement, and on the sustainability of individual institutions and the system-as-a-whole. Some countries are targeting resources on a limited number of institutions, while others are encouraging mergers to enhance viability and visibility in an increasingly competitive world. Many institutions are restructuring themselves in accordance with the new economic realities while others are experiencing the largesse of stimulus investment. As a group, colleges and universities are becoming more efficient and productive, developing new business models, adjusting their strategic ambitions and their organisational shape. What effect are these changes having in the medium and long-term?

Regardless of jurisdiction, questions are being asked about the seemingly unrelenting rise in the cost of higher education–often expressed in terms of tuition fees and public expenditure. Is higher education the next bubble? Even among die-hard proponents of free tuition, there is a growing realization that some form of cost-sharing is necessary. The crisis has exposed fundamental weaknesses in our model of mass (public) higher education, but has also raised questions about not just who goes to college but which college and which program? How can the model be made sustainable? Quality is a complex concept, but what is the relationship between resources and quality?
What are the implications not only for the institutions but also for and on students, of all ages? What is the effect on participation rates, on their choice of institution and program, and their performance? And what is the impact on academic work? Faculty are also under pressure. Calls for greater productivity and accountability challenge traditional work-practices and values–but how do we enhance performance, achieve value-for-money, and maintain quality in very difficult times?

“Managerialism” is a controversial term for sections of the academic literature, variously linked with the loss of university autonomy and the adoption of neo-liberal principles. But, leading an institution in the current climate is very difficult. As a result, university presidents and rectors are adopting a more strategic and professional approach to governance and management. What are the leadership challenges and what choices are being made–and what can institutions learn from each other? To what extent are the issues common across world-regions and institutional types?

The pages of this newspaper regularly provide reportage of the economic crisis and its effects on higher education. Likewise, the European University Association has been monitoring the situation in Europe since the onset of the crisis in 2008. However, I’m not aware of any in-depth international or comparative studies which have sought to delve behind the anecdote and the headlines.

To begin to answer these and many other questions, I am conducting an international study, “The Impact of the Global Economic Crisis on Higher Education: Higher Education Leadership and Management Challenges,” in partnership with the International Association of Universities in Paris.

We hope to survey at least 50 institutions worldwide. Any college or university interested in participating should contact us before July 31.

[Creative Commons licensed Wikimedia photo by William Murphy]

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