Saturday, August 24, 2013

Government Rating Universities Not a Good Idea

The US Government is reported to be planning to rate colleges and using this to apportion funding ("Obama’s Plan Aims to Lower Cost of College", by TAMAR LEWIN, New York Times, August 22, 2013). If government is funding colleges, then it is reasonable there is a government mandated minimum standard. But a government rating one college as better than another is more problematic. Apart from the problem of having a reliable system, it has to be asked what is the purpose of the government rating and if it will be effective.

Australia has the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), which is a government agency, but relatively free of political interference, with academics setting the standards.

The Australian Government provides the "MyUniversity" website with details of all Australian institutions. This details the qualifications of the staff and how many have awards for teaching, which is relatively uncontroversial.

More at issue are student survey results for each subject area. I have recently undertaken tertiary teacher training and so am comfortable with the idea of being rated by the students and have designed a course which rates highly. But some of my colleagues have difficulty with the concept and practice of designing courses which meet external standards and are popular with students.

There is the risk of a race to the bottom, with courses which just meet minimum standards and are designed to be easy and therefore popular. But I find that students value a course which challenges them. Also while meeting external standards is a useful discipline for the course designer.

Problems with US Higher Education

The US Government plans to rate colleges are reported to be related to a number of perceived problems with US higher education: low completion rates of students, and defaults on student loans. Some solutions proposed are already in routine use in Australia, such as competency-based assessment, used in the Australian vocational system, where the emphasis is on demonstrating the required skills, not the length of study. The Australian system of student loans is tied to the income of the student, lessening the hardship for the student (but not reducing the need for policy to encourage vocationally relevant courses).

While the New York Times article mentions MOOCs as a way to  reduce costs. However, someone has to pay for the development of MOOCs. Without correcting flaws in the US education policy, MOOCs will accentuate problems. It is likely there will be new startup educational institutions offering MOOC based programs of questionable value, temping established institutions to follow the same path to compete. This is likely to lead to a collapse of institutions, much as happened at the turn of the last century with the DOT.Com crash of companies offering free web products with no underlying business case.

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