Archive for August, 2006

Go West!

Posted by Eric on August 24th, 2006

Blogging will probably become even slower the coming months. My research is taking me to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Netherlands and the US. In between I’ll do a week of teaching in Portugal and I’ll stay in India and Canada for social visits. I will try to post occasionally on higher education and science issues in the countries where I stay. First up is Indonesia, then comes Malaysia…

Universities and Regional Development

Posted by Eric on August 22nd, 2006
Austan Goolsbee (a professor in economics at the University of Chicago) advises regions in the US to think twice about jumping the ‘Sillicon Valley Bandwagon’. In an article in the New York Times he claims that funding local universities as a strategy for regional economic development is not likely to work. The need for caution is based mainly on the mobility of graduates and researchers.

Students from local colleges, frequently move out of state when they graduate:


If Stanford can hatch world-famous companies around Palo Alto, politicians assume, their colleges can, too. But with so many trying to spin universities away from their traditional academic focus into engines of economic development, it is worth considering whether investing in local universities can achieve that goal. This strategy is based on the view that research done by professors can form the basis for local start-up companies and that the graduates of the university can supply the entrepreneurs and employees.

But advocates should remember an old maxim of economic development: Beware of investing in things that can move. As it turns out, graduates and research ideas both tend to move around a lot. Subsidizing teaching is problematic as a development strategy because graduates frequently move out of state.

And ideas and inventions – even in the form of patents – are of little use when the scientists that invented them, leave. Or in the words of Lynne Zucker and Michael Darby, when they become ‘disembodied discoveries‘:

They looked at such factors as having successful patents at universities or where highly influential science articles had originated. They found little evidence that the ideas helped local businesses any more than businesses in other areas. The one thing the study does find to be consistently associated with high-tech start-ups is the presence of star scientists – not the ideas, which can be copied, but the scientists themselves. This seems to be the one way in which a university can be used as an engine of business growth.

The importance of star scientists brings Goolsbee to the comparison with American Baseball:

Trying to make some town into the next Silicon Valley by attracting the best scientists is rather like trying to start a new baseball team and turn it into the New York Yankees. If dozens of sports-mad billionaire team owners can’t do that, how easy would it be for the economic development office at the University of Texas, Arlington?

What is worse, it is a safe bet that as these development incentives become a primary motivation for financing higher education, the competition among universities for stars will start looking much more like today’s baseball scene. Ambitious state university systems will find it easier to steal the stars of another team than to develop their own prospects. As a result, salaries will go through the roof – just as in baseball. And while everyone pays more, only a tiny number of cities will ever win the World Series. One will increasingly hear about how the costs of college are rising everywhere and that local economies have little to show for it.

The university’s role in regional development is popular issue in higher education and innovation policies around the world, especially in Europe. So will these arguments be valid for other countries as well? I think it depends a bit on how you define the region. In the narrow definition of regions this can be the case. For instance, supporting a university in northern Finland might benefit the Helsinki region in the south more than the investing region itself. So yes, the local and regional governments should think about these arguments when planning for their own Silicon Valley. However, because the funding of universities in many countries comes to a large extent from national sources (not local or regional) the creation of these high tech areas are usually elements of a larger national innovation policy (especially in smaller countries).
If we compare the US states with countries, the mobility of graduates and star scientists might present a serious problem. If star scientists and graduates move to other countries, the national investments in these graduates and in the research of the scientists will not benefit the investing country but the host country. On the other hand, I think the mobility of graduates and scientists between the US States and between the US universities is significantly higher than between other countries and their universities.
Maybe the concept of the ‘star scientists’ is even very American in itself… One thing is for sure. Luring top scientists with the salaries of baseball players won’t help a lot outside the US. The salaries of football players and a comparison with the Champions League might do a better job at that.

Prestigious Universities & Quality Education

Posted by Eric on August 15th, 2006
Harvard, Princeton, London School of Economics. Prestigious universities with reputable academics and therefore a popular destination for students seeking high quality education. These universities score high on most rankings both internationally (THES rankings or the Shanghai Jiao Tong World Universities Ranking) and domestic (US News & World Report in the US and the Good Universities Guide in the UK). But… does that mean that students will get their high quality education?

The cover of Time (USA) and an op-ed piece for the Times Higher Education Supplement (UK) by Erik Ringmar seem to question this. Time observes that more and more students choose to attend small private colleges, even if they are admitted into the Ivy League institutions: competition for the Ivies is as fierce as ever, but kids who look beyond the famous schools may be the smartest applicants of all. Closer interaction with teachers is an important factor in this choice.

Walter Kirn, alumnus of Princeton, writes about the Ivy League X factor:

Although Princeton had far more money and mystique, its reading lists were composed of the same books, and its students were filled with the same questions. But the students carried those books with more aplomb, and they asked their questions with more confidence. That was the Ivy League’s X factor. It bred confidence…

The case of Ringmar and LSE has been discussed frequently on blogs and in the mainstream media. At an LSE Open Day speech Ringmar – a senior lecturer at LSE at that time – told the future students that the real teaching was done by PhD students and that the in-class student experience was no better than they would get at the far less prestigious London Metropolitan University – in fact they might see more of the academic staff there (his Open Day speech can be found here).

In the op-ed piece, Ringmar repeats his point that it’s not so much the learning experience that is valuable for students but that it’s a matter of being certified:


During their first year at an elite institution like the LSE, students spend much of their time asking themselves what all the fuss is about. Obviously they know about the reputation of the School, the famous professors, the important books, the talking-LSE-heads that constantly pop up on the telly. But, the students ask, if the LSE is so great, why are many of the lecturers so boring, many exercises so useless, and why do the academics never seem to have any time for us?

An LSE diploma is not a proof of what they have learned as much as of their ability to come out on top in a neck-to-neck competition with their peers. A London Met diploma just doesn’t do the same job.

Kirn seems to support this:


Even though we learned nothing at Princeton that we couldn’t have learned elsewhere, the place gave us a calling card whose impact and power were undeniable. I assume it has opened doors for me, but none of the gatekeepers have said as much.

Ringmar and Kirn are both right to some extent. The additional value of a Princeton or LSE degree over a ‘regular’ degree is not (only) in the quality of education but also in the way these degrees open doors in the future.

However, the selection of students will also affect the quality of education, assuming that quality is determined by more than just the student-teacher interaction. The interaction between the students themselves, inside as well as outside classes, contributes at least as much. And considering the effort students need to do to get in, this interaction might be a bit more challenging in those institutions.

Whose European Higher Education?

Posted by Eric on August 9th, 2006

Last Month, the Dutch Central Planning Agency (CPB; international name: Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis) published a report on the role of Europe in higher education: “Higher education: Time for coordination on a European level?” (in English). More specifically, they asked the question whether there are valid reasons for more European (as opposed to national) coordination of higher education. Their final conclusion is NO: there is little empirical data that supports a shift towards European coordination of higher education. The authors claim that neither economies of scale, nor the existence of external spill-overs substantially justify an increased European role.

However, looking at European developments in the last few decades, I do see that there is a shift from national coordination towards European coordination. Question then is of course: why does this happen? And who pushes for increased Europeanisation if there are no justified reasons for nation states to do so? Clearly, many other parties do have a steak in further Europeanisation of HE:

1. Students, Employers and Professions. Student mobility in Europe will have (indirect) consequences for national policies. Increased mobility will demand increased coordination and standardisation at the European level. One of the consequences here has been the European Credit Transfer System, standardising the credit systems in European systems. In the future, the principle of non-discrimination might well pose severe obstacles for the discretionary capacity of states to offer free higher education for their nationals. The CPB report shows that most students aren’t very mobile and are not willing to go abroad to find quality education, but usually start their higher education close at home. I think however that – in due time – the European BaMa structure will lead to a substantial increase in mobility in the Masters stage, especially if the (financial) benefits of a prestigious ‘foreign’ Masters degree becomes more visible. With the increase in mobility of professionals there will also be more demand for standardisation and transparency in degrees and qualifications from the side of employers and of professional organisations (lawyers, medicine, accountants, etc). Simply said: increased movement and mobility leads to the necessity of coordination and facilitation of these flows. Be it flows of telephone calls or gigabytes or of students, academics, credits, services.

2. European Institutions. Many European rules have been created to coordinate and facilitate these flows. These rules were not at all related to higher education. Rulings of the European Court of Justice however, have had a substantial effect on the authority of national governments over their ‘own’ national higher education systems. In many instances, European law – that was not created to regulate higher education – indirectly affected higher education. Several ECJ cases in the 70s and 80s were related to education, revolving around issues like access to education for non-nationals in member states and eligibility for particular provisions and the relation with the principles of non-discrimination (for an excellent analysis, see Verbruggen, 2002, in Dutch). One of the best known examples of this was the Gravier Case.

Two points in the Court’s ruling of the Gravier Case were relevant to the European Community’s competencies in higher education. First, the ruling stated that a non-national student cannot be charged an additional fee as a condition of access if nationals of the host state do not pay the same fee. Secondly, by stating that higher education could be seen as vocational, the Court defacto extended the competencies of the Community, since vocational training was already part of the Treaty and related provisions now could also apply to (parts of) higher education.

The principle of non-discrimination together with the rules on the free mobility of persons, workers and services increasingly impact higher education even though they were not created to do so. The growing role of the ECJ in this ‘Europeanisation by stealth’ is illustrated by a recent example: the German medicine students in Austria. In this case, substantial national reforms can be traced back to ECJ rulings. Other national regulations on access to programmes might be proven to be counter to European law, like the case of French students applying for Belgian programmes in veterinary science and physiotherapy.

3. Universities. Universities will strategically try to lift coordination to the European level whenever they see benefits for themselves; in other cases they will ally with their national governments. The ‘European level’ creates an extra avenue for universities in which to operate. As a response they have created a dense network of relations with other universities in order to exploit – politically or financially – their European opportunities. With more financial resources spent on European initiatives, especially fuelled by the European Lisbon Agenda promoting innovation, universities will operate and cooperate more on a European scale in order to gain access to the financial and political resources. This lifts coordination up to a European scale directly as well as indirectly. Directly through the inter-organisational coordination of activities among universities. Indirectly through the emergence of an ever denser European policy community, existing of universities, university networks, intermediary bodies, resource providers and official EU institutions.

4. The European policy community in HE. The emergence of this European policy community in higher education has become a self-reinforcing process. The informal and formal networks and the numerous European organisations active in the field of higher education have all gained a vested interest in ongoing European integration. This is clear for official European institutions like the Commission, Parliament and ECJ, but it also goes for networks and organisations like the European University Association (EUA), National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB), European Association for International Education (EAIE), Academic Cooperation Association (ACA), European Association of Institutions in Higher Education (EURASHE), the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), etc. or inter-university networks like Coimbra Group, ECIU, LERU, the Santander Group, UNICA, etc., etc., etc.

The CPB might have found that there are not many reasons for increased European coordination. I think that this will not stop the Europenisation process. All in all, I think an increasing role of ‘Europe’ in national higher education is inevitable. The big question however is: who is ‘Europe’. Will the Commission and the ECJ take on the role previously performed by nation states in the coordination of higher education? Will it be an outcome of the interplay between universities, students, professions and employers? Or will it still be the member states, that are becoming more and more ‘Europeanised’ themselves. A mixture probably.

So, is it “time for coordination on a European level?” I think the question assumes too much agency, especially at the side of national governments. Whether it is time or not, it is happening. And it is not likely to stop.

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