Monday, March 27, 2006

Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk

Sometimes it takes a while for information to cross the Atlantic, often there's an invisible cultural barrier, obscured by a common language. As an example, I only just saw the PBS TV programme "Declining by Degrees" (1) despite it being released last summer. I guess it hasn't really been marketed on this side of the pond, although a number of American colleagues at the recent conference in Dortmund drew my attention to it (and also to "My Freshman Year," of which, more at a later date) and strongly recommended that I watch it. So I logged on to (US) Amazon and ordered a copy, converted my DVD drive to view Region 1 and sat back.

What a fascinating documentary, I have to say. I was also amused by the comment on the back of the DVD box that implies that such problems are uniquely American by pointing out the increasing investment in other countries in higher education. Amusing, because so many of these countries often point to the US as an example, albeit focussing on the elite colleges rather than the state systems and community colleges that are actually responsible for 95% of students in higher education. And of course, that some of the teaching and learning problems highlighted in the programme are most certainly not peculiar to the US!

What is the thesis? Well, basically there are a number of points. The first is that the learning experience for many students in higher education today is impoverished; students are not pushed academically and can cruise through degree programmes without really engaging in the subject matter, grades are inflated, it being virtually impossible to score a "C" or below in many classes (no matter how hard you try!). Pressures to keep students in the system instead of being financially penalised for failing those who might have been so treated in the past, are causing problems and, as the second half of the programme illustrates vividly, often it is the financial structures in place that are responsible for this state of affairs.

The programme shows how many scholarships tend to support students who are doing well academically and who come from reasonably secure financial backgrounds, whilst those from poorer backgrounds, even if they score highly, can often be forced to drop out of university and seek refuge in community colleges and part-time (often full-time) jobs on low pay.

A sobering picture and one which will certainly fuel a lot of discussion and debate. I aim to show it at our lunchtime "Conversations in Learning & Teaching" sessions sometime soon. The website also contains interesting supplementary materials including the results of the 2004 Student Engagement survey, which I had seen before and which you can download from this link (2).


No comments: