One of the courses I teach is microeconomics. We study how people and firms make decisions, how markets function and how government interventions affect market outcomes. One of the insights I hope students take with them is that setting policy is a lot harder than it seems. The social sciences don’t have labs where policymakers can test what will happen beforehand. Thus, there are often unintended consequences. Sometimes they are due to policymakers not consulting with their boots on the ground. Other times, circumstances change or agents act in surprising ways.
With that in mind, let’s look at a few European higher education “policies for excellence,” as reported by Inside Higher Ed (http://bit.ly/cashforexcellence). In each case the motivations and goals underlying these policies are worthy. But the policies are, or will be, fraught with unintended consequences.
Denmark: Their funding system is characterized as an “output driven model” where schools are awarded funding based on how many students pass their exams each year. Funding is forfeited if students don’t pass or if they don’t take the exams. Comment: Sounds a lot like “no child left behind” for Danish universities. Passing rates of courses can lead to fraud. Passing rates of national exams, assuming they are assessing critical thinking skills and not just test-taking ability and rote memorization, are somewhat better. But high stakes exams may not capture learning. Sometimes they reflect memorization skills or test-taking ability.
Finland: Awards are on the basis of internationalization criteria: student mobility to/from Finland; institutional recruiting of international teaching and research staff; master’s and PhDs awarded to international students. Good student feedback and higher graduate employment targets (cycled every three years) are also part of the funding system. Comment: Good student feedback can mean, “I’ll pretend to teach and you pretend to learn and the government will never know the difference.” I’m unclear about the connection between attracting international students / recruiting international staff and improving higher education through increased funding.
Poland: Approximately 35% of funding is based on teaching and research quality. Quality metrics include staff-to-student ratio, ratio of students in both national and international exchanges. Assessment of staff seniority and experience also count in deciding teaching grants. Titles have different weights in the computations, and some disciplines count more. Comment: As I read about this one, I thought of Animal Farm. Some majors are more equal than others. As with Finland’s system, I am unclear about the role of internationalization in higher education quality. Are policymakers suggesting their domestic teachers fall short?
Czech Republic: Twenty percent of funding is based on performance metrics (up from 9% in 2009). Of that funding, 39% is based on research objectives; 34% is based on teaching quality and graduate employability. Universities are graded on staff quality and teaching arrangements, and graduate employment at 6 months and one year. An additional 27% is based on internationalization measures: levels of foreign students, international collaboration and student mobility. Comment: Research-based objectives will increase, and likely also improve research outcomes. But that doesn’t ensure quality teaching will necessarily develop too. The U.S. model, with Research-I institutions valuing research over teaching is evidence of that.
The Netherlands: Funding is based on achieving strategic plan objectives. Schools could set their own targets, but for 2015 they had to include seven educational indicators like, completion rates and number of students in “excellence schemes.” Comment: This model may be the closest to measuring institutional effectiveness and gains in student learning. It suggests similarities to the assessment loop model where goals and objectives are set, instruction occurs, data is gathered, then evaluated, and the loop is closed by adjusting instruction.
What’s missing from all of these programs is a focus on learning. Study abroad is a good thing, but if students aren’t learning, haven’t we missed the point? Targets and benchmarks look good on paper, and make for good sound bites. The problem is that learning is often much more subtle than a blunt, national policy or instrument can measure and reward.