In this week, we will draw an overview of the Australian and US models of higher education. The US is included because a) it is often held up as a model to be emulated, and b) I know the system well having spent my entire career as a student in it! The Australian system of higher education is influenced by its peers in the US and UK.

Australian policy makers are concerned by what they consider a lack of diversity within their system of higher education. Diversity is a regular feature in The Australian’s higher education supplement, for example. The article about the US model provides basic information about the system, its diversity, and the main challenges that it faces. The Duke article provides a broader discussion about the values, ideals and trends shaping Australian higher education.

Learning objectives: American Council of Education (Eckel & King)
1. What are the philosophical underpinnings of tertiary education in the US?
2. What is the main role of the federal government?
3. Why are tuition fees rising? How is it affecting participation and access?
4. What is the profile of the student body?
5. In what ways do the philosophical underpinnings work against each other?

Learning objectives: Duke
1. What are the historical forces, ideals and ideologies influencing Australian higher education?
2. What has been the role of government and universities in shaping the system of Australian higher education?

Learning objectives: Stenstrom
1. What is the dual structure of the Finnish higher education system? What role does each sector play?
2. What kinds of skills and knowledge do polytechnics provide?
3. What are the experiences of polytechnic graduates in the labor market?

Learning objectives: Bahr
1. What is a community college?
2. Who studies at community colleges and why?
3. What are the six main types of students who study at community colleges for the first time?
4. What is Bahr’s behavioral classification scheme?

My initial contribution

Given that it's Thursday and the forum has naught but tumbleweeds rolling past, I thought I'd share thoughts and summaries on the material for Topic 8, Diversification. The selection of readings (Eckel and King, Duke (2004). Stenstrom (2006), Bahr (2011)) discuss matters relating to the topic from the perspective of the U.S. education system, Australia, Finland, and the community college system respectively.

The Eckel and King description emphasizes the U.S. combination of institutional autonomy, limited government (although with notable land grants and government becoming the major financier of research and student aid) and use of market forces, and size as being the major factors. Despite increasing costs and demand, the level of diversity has also increased: "The majority of undergraduate students are women and one-third are racial or ethnic minorities. More than 40 percent are age 25 or older... About 20 percent come from families with incomes at or below the federal poverty level... Three out of four American [sic] college students are considered non-traditional.." (p7). Another notable feature is that students often transfer between institutions assisted by a common credit system. A quirk - and apparently a damaging one - is the disproportionate influnece of athletics on campus to the student population due to its financial importance. The main issue facing the U.S. higher education is a common one; public funding is not keeping pace with expenditures, and it do to increasingly restrictive immigration and security laws other countries are making significant inroads to the international student market.

Looking at the Australian education system, Duke provides a dryly cynical assessment of Australia's attitude towards the university sector, making some biting comments concerning Australian social mores: "For all the celebration of larrikin humour, ingenuity and mateship, Australia may be seen as regulated, self-distrusting, and bureaucratic, not taking easily to intellectually founded innovation." (p300). In the university system this is reflected by "the Idea of the university is becoming subsumed in the planning of tertiary or higher education systems". Whilst not explicitly stated, it does raise the question of whether innovation (and especially innovation in higher education) is something that can be achieved through highly structured systems. Referring back to the issue of diversification however, how one of the important orientations in the Australian system is the need to move from an elite higher-education system towards a more universal approach (p302-303). Again Duke raises the question of to what degree this notion of the university Idea is in concord with the higher education system, invoking historical attachments to pragmatism, academic freedom, and, most importantly, contemporary notions of entrepreneurship that conflict with these.

The Stenstrom article is quite a contrast to the preceeding two, describing the workforce skills of graduates from Finnish polytechnics. Like other countries (such as Australia, New Zealand), Finland has a dual system for technical and vocational tertiary education and the research orientated universities. Polytechnic graduate unemployment rates were impressive, a third of the general unemployment rate and 40% less than those with a lower tertiary degree (p91), although these had differences in distribution across disciplines and employment roles. The majority were in jobs related to their discipline, and the graduates considered themselves experts in their graduate field with a high level of job satisfaction. Whilst this is all good, indeed excellent, empirical data it is a struggle to work out how this paper fits within the topic's stated interest of "Diversification" without equally empirical data concerning the social background of those who have enrolled in the polytechnics. The only diversification evident is the type of skills being taught in the sector.

The final reading by Bahr provides a clustered typology of users by behaviour in U.S. community colleges, diverse organisations that are roughly equivalent of TAFE or other institution that provides lower-level tertiary degrees. Bahr describes students as belonging to 'clusters', specifically drop-in, experimental, non-credit, vocational, transfer, and exploratory (p34), and finding a revised "six-cluster solution to offer the optimal levels of cluster differentiation and parsimony" (p38), a pleasing empirical match to qualitative assessments which is often missing in micro-sociology. Of note from other sources is the number of students attending community colleges who require remedial assistance in education basics (mathematics, reading and writing) (p40), which varied significantly across the clusters.

Overall it is an interesting collection of readings illustrating a diversification of institutional form and teaching programmes, rather than a look at the diversity of students and whether student numbers have a correlation with society as a whole. Much of the latter question will apparently find its way in the next topic, Stratification, which yours truly will be responsible for initiating discussion on. Viewing diversity it in terms of the former concern however raises challenging policy issues. Is it possible to have a tertiary education system at all which provides a balanced range of teaching programmes (technical-vocational, transitional, research) yet at the same time provides for the autonomy and self-accreditation that the research institutions desire in a manner that is cost-efficient, especially to the public? Some of these goals may indeed be contradictory; cost-efficiency, for example, suggests a merging of institutional forms, but if this is done will there be a loss of autonomy? Is it not possible to have mixed levels of autonomy depending on the teaching programme? These are certainly the sort of policy questions that require further elaboration.

Natalie's response
A few comments that came to mind after finishing Topic 8:

Primarily, the significance of the sociocultural and economic landscape on the higher education system, division and direction was again reinforced by this week's readings.

Within America, a culture of autonomy, freedom, independence, capitalism, limited government interference and value placed on the education system as a means for equal opportunity to occur, appeared to be somewhat reflected in the statistics presented in terms of the diversity of the higher education institutions available and diversity of the student population. Seventy five per cent of students being non-traditional, 1/3 are from ethnic of different racial groups and 20% of students from families with incomes at or below the poverty line. Notably an improvement when compared with Australia , which sat at 15% of higher education students at or below the poverty line ( Bradley Review).

And then we crossed to a look at Australia and a culture of mateship, sun, multiculturalism and celebration of the ordinary man. Reflected beautifully in the recent elections with a diverse collection of independents and 'ordinary people' running for parliament. There was a lament from Duke that our 'culture of the unpretentious', threatened to be anti-intellectual and the antithesis of expertise (p.299). Certainly, at a personal level, these comments resonated and the concomitant lack of intellectual role models and celebration of scholarly activities within the broader community. There is a sense from the readings that the move towards a market-based model is compromising the pursuit of academic and research activities. Those that provide a short-term economic benefit are more likely to be pursued at the cost of intellectual enquiry and the long term health of the higher education sector. Duke further added that even within Australia, pursuit of academic freedom appeared more concerned about the freedom from accountability and budget strings than an ideal of a free, academic voice in the pursuit of truth and learning.

To what extent does the widely embraced concept of a tall poppy syndrome, combined with an egalitarian culture, impact on the Australian higher education system, in curbing the pursuit of innovative projects, ideas and learning would be interesting to investigate?

Finally, Stenstrom's article on Finnish polytechnics, elicited curiosity about their university sector. A sector designated towards scientific and scholarly activities. What would such a university look like? Does such a division benefit the university sector? Also, how does the Finnish weather and history influence the nature of the university system. After spending twelve months going to college in Iceland, as an 18 year old, I can comment that living in a culture with a long history of literature and long winters, a celebration of scholarly activities was evident.

In reference to the sociocultural and economic influence on the education system, this was further observed in Iceland. The education system appeared to support the local labour market, with long breaks over Summer for students as young as 13 to be taken up by full-time work in the labour market for a busy Summer tourist and farming season. In winter, there would be a return to darkness and full-time education. Thus, vocational skills started early with real-life practical work and interpersonal skill development in a situational learning environment, for a significant proportion of the year.

My response to Natalie
A couple of comments regarding the Stenstorm article. As you correctly note, unlike the TAFE/Polytechnic experience in some other countries, in Finland the polytechnics can offer bachelor's degrees (specifically the Bachelor of Engineering) and are described as universities (e.g., Tampere University of Applied Sciences, Turku University of Applied Sciences, Kemi-Tornio University of Applied Sciences). In addition to these, Finland has Universities of Technology which offer higher and research degrees (e.g., B.Sc. (Tech.), M.Sc. (Tech.), Lic.Sc. (Tech.), Ph.D. and D.Sc.(Tech.)). These include Aalto University, Tampere University of Technology, and Lappeenranta University of Technology). I wonder (always with Murdoch University in mind) to what extent it is beneficial to have universities with a more narrow orientation (e.g., arts, sciences, laws) rather than having centres within broad-based universities which encourage multi-discipline and interdisciplinary studies.

The question about the weather is not, of course, to be dismissed out-of-hand. Certainly there is some evidence that the colder climes contribute significantly to indoor pursuits, of which education features highly. Least one thinks that this is primarily cultural, comparisons with educational institutions north and south of 45-degrees latitude is worthy of further analysis. Although I hasten to mention an issue of the satirical academic journal, "Annals of Improbable Research" (who provide the igNobel prize) in the early 90s which did a study of women's representation in parliament according to latitude and concluded that the capitals of the world, in the interest of gender equality, should move to the North Pole!

Alusine's response
I am fascinated by Eckel and King’s assessment of diversification of higher education. Having reflected on the comments made, I believe the diversification of high education is two fold. Firstly, it should focus on the establishment of additional institutional courses and technological innovation to attract students globally. Secondly higher education must be available to young people irrespective of their socio-economic status, gender and ethnic background. In an Australian context, in order for Australia to compete with other nations in the education field efforts must be made to ensure that all young people are provided with access to education. If this access if achieved Australia will be able to positively contribute to the global economy of knowledge. Eckel and King note that in the United States funding cuts have caused universities to push for their own autonomy. Accordingly, the scope of research undertaken by such universities is shifting. While this may be the case for universities in the United States, I do not believe that education in general is becoming autonomous. Education in most Western countries is highly regulated by government. For example, Australian primary and high school education is still highly regulated by government and schools have little to no autonomy over content as it is mandated by the curriculum. Ahola and Galli indicate that United States universities are influenced by state authorities, academic staff and consumers. As such even if Eckel and King’s theory of reduced government funding increasing autonomy was correct, according to Aloha and Galli universities would still be influenced by academic staff and consumers and not be autonomous entities.