Mr Birkbeck goes to Washington – to try and make HE great again

Recently I had the privilege to attend the National Association of Presidential Assistants in Higher Education (NAPAHE for short) annual conference, in Washington DC.

This conference serves as a preliminary part of the annual American Council for Education (ACE) conference, a major event on the US higher education calendar. I attended NAPAHE to partly understand the variety and breadth of the US higher education system, but also to learn if some of the approaches there might be used in a UK context.

Shining a light

I have been involved in the Lighthouse Policy Group network for a number of years. It aims to bring around 30 (of the c. 70 we’ve identified) UK vice chancellor’s advisers together twice a year.  NAPAHE has been operating for 31 years as a way of bringing together those across the US sector who support university presidents, provosts and chancellors – be they a chief of staff, executive officer, policy adviser or special assistant. The maturity and diversity of the range of institutions in attendance is something that the Office for Students would rightly be proud of.

The conference attracted over 250 presidential assistants (in the broadest terms) from all corners of the United States, with a particularly large contingent from California, and interlopers like myself and some from Canada too.

What became clear after speaking with delegates and in the breakout sessions was that many of the issues facing US university campuses are very similar to the challenges facing us in the UK. Thankfully, the session on crisis management and how to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey at the University of Houston, were unlikely to be used in the UK (though you never know). Many other topics were tackled with the same level of concern.

I attended an in-depth session on issues facing “small public institutions” which aligned most closely with my home institution, but there were sessions for; small privates, medium to large privates, large publics, and systems. Even then there were institutions like religious colleges who fell outside of those descriptions. Again the real diversity of US institutions was fascinating.

Contractions and mergers

In one of the plenary sessions on “higher education and the public trust”, the familiar issues of student loans, tuition fees, and graduate employment came up – along with the response in the media and political worlds. This is particularly challenging in the US as higher education has been a key part of the “American dream” at least since the end of World War Two, if not longer. Since 1945, US college enrolments were fuelled by the GI Bill for returning servicemen, and consequently, a broader spread of American society had experience of higher education than ever before.

While “college” is still a good return on investment, there is also a backdrop of falling enrolments in some colleges and also of mergers, according to a former president of a large state university system. In Georgia, 12 public institutions have merged in the past few years. This is partly due to a fall in enrolments as some younger people are less attracted to higher education, and partly because state budgets are being trimmed. Other states such as Arkansas and North Carolina are now looking at this too. Is this the sign of things to come?

Compare & contrast

Another session – “fostering civility in higher education” – was particularly telling, as many younger students, who have only ever experienced social media in their lives, are passionate about issues but lack the skills to provide nuance or context. The president of Westchester College reinforced that this lack of skills is a good reason for young (and older) students to have a liberal arts education, presented with balance and not just from a “liberal” political perspective. One university president added that universities themselves have to be aware of where activism spills over into the classroom, which can give a distorted and one-sided view of history or events. What are the implications for maintaining public engagement and legitimacy here, from widening participation to the content of the academic curriculum?

Overall the conference gave a very helpful run around a lot of strategic issues, with a focus on local issues where appropriate for the US delegates.  One particularly fun session was with the Protocol School of Washington (PSOW), who deliver protocol training for businesses and also for many universities. As part of the delegate pack, we were all given a copy of the “Little Book of Etiquette” which should mean I can now host an event with aplomb…

While it is not necessarily a conference to attend every year, I think many in the UK higher education system could learn a thing or two from across the pond, such as the importance of maintaining legitimacy from the public, creating a modern curriculum and the importance of involving all parts of the community in the benefits of higher education. I hope to bring some of the ideas and suggestions back to Birkbeck and also in other networks, such as the Lighthouse Group.

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