Higher Education Disrupted: The Politics and Policies of Transformation

“Higher Education Disrupted: The Politics and Policies of Transformation” Presentation,
2016 APSA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA

This roundtable brings together established and newer voices from different parts of the academy to discuss the politics of higher education’s ongoing transformation and address the policy lessons of recent reform attempts. Run as a moderated discussion, the roundtable will focus on the contemporary United States (US). Selective historical comparisons and references to rich democracies in Europe will provide additional analytical leverage.

The United States’ higher education system has continued to expand. With policymakers never failing to emphasize universities’ crucial contributions to innovation and social inclusion, the sector has come to serve evermore students. By now, higher education is arguably at the center of rich democracies’ efforts to sustain economic growth and provide social investment. Internally, however, universities are deeply challenged. Beset by Baumol’s cost disease and suffering from public authorities’ failure to increase funding in line with growing enrollments, cost pressures have risen. Tuition fees and student debt have reached new record levels, and the segmentation of the academic workforce has continued to progress. Calls for “disruption” of inherited delivery models have strengthened, and hopes for technology-powered productivity increases through flipped classrooms and massive open online courses (MOOCs) have risen (and recently waned).

Political scientists remain underrepresented in policy debates on the future of higher education, so much so that sociologists, historians and journalists have dominated the analysis of the politics behind the sector’s contemporary institutional evolution. Given that higher education’s political elevation has turned the academy into a key battleground for broader distributional conflicts, it is high time for political scientists to tap into their disciplinary tools to explore the sector’s transformation.

Julia Lynch, a scholar of comparative social policy and former graduate student union organizer, will moderate the roundtable. She will launch the discussion, asking journalist-scholar Ben Wildavsky and Americanists Benjamin Ginsberg and Rogers Smith to sketch the contemporary American policy debate on the future of higher education. Wildavsky, author of the highly influential The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World (2010) and co-editor of Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation (2011), will focus on current assessments of the need for disruption and review the incentive schemes that analysts debate as potential stimuli for the sector’s reorientation. Ginsberg, author of The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters (2013), will share his experiences as a faculty participant in this debate. Finally, Smith – who is an Associate Dean and thus a representative of a class exhibiting bloat according to Ginsberg – will complete this first set of contributions, elaborating his worries about the demise of the scholar-teacher model in American higher education.

Subsequently, the discussion will turn to comparative political economists Tobias Schulze-Cleven and Julian Garritzmann who will together put the US debate into the broader context of scholarship on comparative capitalism and welfare states. According to Schulze-Cleven, all rich democracies have engaged in the liberalization of higher education provision, yet the “organized combat” (Hacker and Pierson 2011) among the academy’s collective interests has produced several distinct “varieties of academic capitalism.” Garritzmann will further contextualize the US trajectory, identifying “Four Worlds of Student Finance”: a low-tuition, low-subsidy regime (in continental Europe); a low-tuition, high-subsidy system (in Nordic Europe); a high-tuition, high-subsidy world (in the Anglo-Saxon countries); and a high-tuition, low-subsidy regime (in some Asian and some Latin American countries).

Together, these contributions will provide an empirical foundation for reflections by the next set of speakers, Charlie Eaton and Tali Mendelberg, on the state of social citizenship in US higher education, including a consideration of Suzanne Mettler’s claim that college has become the “great unleveler” (2014). Eaton will explore the dynamics of political contestation in an increasingly financialized academy. Speaking to mobilization efforts among both workers and citizens – including the increasing unionization of non-tenure track faculty in particular – he probes the outlook for “pro-public” coalitions. Finally, Mendelberg highlights crucial gender and race aspects of contemporary political dynamics in higher education.

Thereafter, the group will take questions from the audience. The roundtable’s reflections on the politics and policies of transformation in higher education not only speak directly to the conference’s theme; they should also be of broad interest to many APSA members.

Julia Lynch University of Pennsylvania

Ben Wildavsky, State University of New York
Benjamin Ginsberg, Johns Hopkins University
Rogers M. Smith, University of Pennsylvania
Tobias Schulze-Cleven, Rutgers University
Julian Leonce Garritzmann, University of Konstanz
Charles Eaton, University of California, Berkeley
Tali Mendelberg, Princeton University