Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation
Keynote speech for the 20th Anniversary Conference of the European Access Network, Amsterdam
June 21, 2011
It’s wonderful to be with you here tonight and to help EAN mark this important milestone. Twenty years of focused work in increasing European students’ access to higher education … that’s certainly something to celebrate, and I am very proud and grateful to have been asked to join you here at this year’s conference.
I want to begin by recognizing EAN’s President and our host for this 20th anniversary conference Mary Tupan-Wenno. Mary’s leadership of EAN has been extraordinary, but perhaps even more important, Mary’s vision and energy as the leader of ECHO here in the Netherlands, and her career-long commitment to higher education access, has been a model for me in my career. No one walks the walk better, or more effectively, than Mary, and I’m very grateful for her collegiality, her gracious demeanor, and her friendship.
Sixty percent attainment is effectively the minimum required to meet the needs of the 21st century economy.
As most of you know, I’ve been privileged to be involved with the Network for many years and most recently have served as a member of its executive committee. Not surprisingly, that experience puts me in a position to fully appreciate the good work that EAN has done over the years. As someone who has worked his entire professional life to increase higher education access and success, becoming involved with EAN was not a difficult decision by any means. And it’s been a decision I’ve never regretted. I’ve always valued my involvement with the Network and the relationships with my EAN colleagues.
And, if I may borrow from the title of my own speech this evening, I value my links to the Network “now, more than ever.” That’s because, as we all know, EAN’s higher education access mission is more important than ever. It’s never been more vital that the benefits of higher education be extended more broadly to all types of students—in every country.
We live and work in a global society. Our world is truly a shared world, one that is shrinking and flattening and becoming more tightly interconnected each day. Every satellite news feed … every international financial transaction … every tweet and Facebook posting … brings us closer together as a global family.
Certainly, as with any family, when proximity increases, so do certain pressures. But it’s an inescapable fact that our interconnectedness also leads to greater prosperity and progress. It builds mutual understanding and creates a sense of shared destiny as a global society. That can’t possibly be a bad thing, whatever additional pressures it creates for nations or for us as individuals. And so we need to embrace this trend of connectedness. We must strive to become active participants in the worldwide economy … fully engaged and contributing members of our new global society.
And now more than ever, as everyone in this room knows full well, higher education is the prerequisite for full and active membership in that society. If there’s one message that’s been consistent throughout this conference and implicit in conversations among representatives from every country, it’s this: Increased participation in higher education is vital … to the economic future of individual citizens and to the stability and security of every nation.
Not that every country approaches the task in the same way, of course. Each state and each system retains its own traditions and techniques, its own methods and metrics. And that’s true, even with the advances of the European Higher Education Area (Bologna Process) and other cooperative efforts to improve higher education. Still, despite the enduring differences in their approach, the desired results—the goals toward which all nations work—are essentially the same: broader and greater access to higher education coupled with higher rates of degree completion. The benefits of this two-part formula are obvious and profound: individual growth and enrichment, higher levels of economic and career success, all leading to significant societal improvement.
So, if that’s the basic formula for building a secure and prosperous global society, how well is it being applied—and how well is it working—in various parts of the globe? The short answer is that we’re getting better, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Let’s take a look at the most recent statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD’s most recent Education at a Glance report shows that most countries are slowly improving their postsecondary completion rates, especially among their younger populations. Across the 25 OECD countries, during the 10-year period that ended in 2008, the proportion of adults completing “tertiary education” rose from 21 percent to 28 percent. Clearly, things are trending in the right direction, but with only about one in four adults earning postsecondary credentials, they’re still trending upward far too slowly.
Even among younger adults—those 25 to 34 years old—and even in those countries with the highest levels of degree completion, the numbers aren’t where they need to be. The global leaders—Korea, Canada and Japan—had completion rates between 55 and 58 percent for their young adults in 2008. The OECD average for this age group was about 35 percent, and most European nations and the United States fell somewhere between 38 and 45 percent. So, in essentially all of the countries represented here this evening, only about four in ten young adults have completed postsecondary education.
My friends, that is a very troubling statistic. In fact, it is especially grim when one considers it in light of our rapidly changing—and ever-more demanding—global economy. In my country, for instance, studies by noted labor economist Tony Carnevale predict that, in just seven short years, 63 percent of all American jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. That’s a huge increase since the mid-’70s, when less than 30 percent of jobs required anything beyond a secondary school education—and it points to a huge skills gap that poses a real threat to the nation’s economic recovery.
Here’s another example from a country getting a lot of attention lately—Spain. To be sure, the economic context in Spain is complex, with the incredible post-housing boom bubble still very much dominating the nation’s financial health. Still, Spain is a large and mighty economic engine in Europe—far more important on a pan-European level than the relatively small economy of Greece, for instance. Yet, nearly one out of three Spaniards between the ages of 18 and 24 has not finished secondary education, double the European average. This represents a huge drag on the economic capacity of the nation, as evidenced by the mind-numbing youth unemployment rate of 45 percent. In other words, in an increasingly complex world, those without the educational credentials are being left behind, exacerbating what is already a very tenuous situation.
And those education and skills gaps aren’t confined to specific countries or regions. Employers all over the world are scrambling to find workers who are properly equipped for the 21st century workforce. Just last month, the Manpower Group reported on a worldwide survey of employers that sounded this distress call loud and clear. In Manpower’s Talent Shortage Survey—a poll of nearly 40,000 employers in 39 countries conducted during the first quarter of this year—34 percent of global businesses say they’re having difficulty filling jobs because of a lack of suitable talent. [In the U.S., the figure was 52 percent.] And of those who complained of this difficulty, nearly three-fourths of the respondents—73 percent—cited the inadequate knowledge, skills or experience of job applicants as the primary reason for jobs going unfilled.
Obviously, then, when it comes to today’s labor force, there is a dangerous disconnect between what’s needed and what is actually being produced by the various education systems around the world. This disconnect is hampering countries’ ability to rebound from the recent economic downturn. Even worse, it sets the stage for long-term economic and social stagnation. After all, the world economy is a constantly moving machine. It won’t wait for the laggards to catch up. That means that any state or system that fails to address the disconnect between education and employment is in for a long, hard slog.
It’s clear, then, that, in nearly every country, we need to ramp up educational attainment rates and broaden participation. We need to make sure that far more of our citizens—from every socioeconomic group and every walk of life—enroll and succeed in postsecondary programs.
Fortunately, that message is definitely getting through these days. In recent years, there’s been a noticeable push to increase educational attainment—and it’s not coming just from higher-education officials. Policymakers, economic development officials, labor experts and social scientists all over the world agree that education is the main driver for social progress. More attention—and despite these tight times, sometimes even a bit more money—is being aimed at boosting student success, and at ensuring the quality and relevance of what students actually learn.
Increasing retention and graduation rates has been a focal point for most countries in recent years, and it will continue to be critical as we claw our way out of the economic slowdown. Many nations have set specific goals for higher education attainment, recognizing the critical connections between the educational accomplishments of citizens with the social, cultural, and economic prosperity of the country as a whole. I am proud of the fact that my organization, Lumina Foundation, is part of a widespread effort to reach an ambitious, national goal for higher education attainment in the U.S. By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of the population to hold high-quality degrees or credentials. As the labor market data clearly show, 60 percent attainment is effectively the minimum required to meet the needs of the 21st century economy.
But as I’ve already pointed out, we have a long way to go to reach 60 percent—a full 18 percentage points, according to the latest OECD figures. To overcome these challenges, higher-ed systems in every country need to change the way they do business. They need to find ways to produce more and better graduates—especially from educationally and historically disadvantaged populations, who are often the fastest growing societal groups. And they must do so more quickly and efficiently than ever before.
In short, global higher education needs to be more productive, more innovative and more efficient. Yes, more resources are needed, in virtually every context and every nation. But absent an unprecedented and highly unlikely infusion of significant new resources, most countries are, at best, facing the prospect of level or declining support for higher education in the near term. As a result, it will be imperative for institutions and systems and states to apply good business practices to their operations. That doesn’t simply mean they should look to cut costs, though such efforts are at least marginally helpful. It also means they should be incentivized and rewarded for ensuring that they meet their educational goals.
There are many ways to focus on these educational—not administrative—results. Institutional funding should be tied in part to ensuring that students finish the programs they start. Rewards should be highest for institutions that do the best job of serving educationally and socially underserved populations. Student-based funding should be similarly targeted on rewarding educational achievement, again with a thumb on the scales for the least-able populations. Institutions also should be encouraged to expand and improve the ways they offer course material—including online classes, competency-based learning, and other nontraditional delivery methods.
They also need to maintain a focus on quality—genuine quality, not the kind that is measured through indirect measures like research output. After all, increasing degree-attainment rates is a hollow victory if those additional degrees don’t truly signify genuine and relevant learning on the part of students. That’s why the ongoing work on Tuning is so important and useful. Tuning—a concept born here in Europe—allows discipline-based teaching staff (or as we say in the U.S., the faculty) to clearly define learning, not simply as a function of time spent in class or on task, but by a student’s demonstrated knowledge or proven attainment of specific skills. In turn, the Tuning concept has led to parallel efforts in Latin America, the U.S., and other parts of the world, as well as more recent efforts to develop new kinds of qualifications frameworks.
These frameworks are quality-control devices that can help us fill the skills gaps I talked about earlier. They are, in essence, well-defined collections of related skills and knowledge … specific competencies that are universally accepted as proof of a student’s mastery at a specific degree or qualifications level, or in an area of study. Put more simply, these new qualifications frameworks are both a roadmap and a seal of approval. They give students clear direction for their learning and, at the same time, offer employers assurance that graduates are competent and employable.
I’ve been talking for some time now about improving the outcomes of higher education … of increasing student success rates and improving productivity and ensuring that student learning is rigorous and relevant. All of those things are important, of course, but my main message to you this evening has less to do with the end of the higher education experience than it does with the beginning. Of course the desired result is to significantly increase the number of individuals who have high-quality degrees and credentials. But the simple fact is, no matter how much we improve our business model or boost retention or ensure relevant learning, we’ll fall short of our goal if we don’t reach out to millions more students … particularly the students EAN has always existed to serve: those who traditionally have been underrepresented in higher education.
In other words, now more than ever—even in an environment where student success seems to be the focus—student access is still the key. We can’t get where we need to go simply by doing better the things we have always done. We can’t hope to meet the demands of the global society if we simply find better ways to serve the same clientele. No, it’s compellingly clear that we must do all we can to broaden our base, as widely as possible.
This widening has dimensions that play out differently in various national contexts, and includes factors that are as diverse as the EAN membership: gender, ethnicity, race, income, employment status, disability, age, prior educational experience, and numerous others. But the common denominator is the need to increase the numbers of those who have been left behind.
That’s why I am pleased that EAN is pursuing the idea of a World Congress on Access. It’s a discussion we need to have because it will help us reach out to the huge and growing populations of underrepresented students who constitute the new reality in today’s world. We must make sure these 21st century students are prepared for higher education, we must expect and encourage them to enroll, and we must do all we can to help them succeed.
Making the shift won’t be easy, of course. In most cases and in most countries, higher education systems, structures and practices weren’t established to properly and effectively serve this new group of 21st century students. It’s a group more diverse and variable than can almost be imagined. And in today’s economic climate, many of these students face higher barriers than ever before.
Our host country for this conference provides a useful illustration. In the European context, the Netherlands serves as a model in many ways—unemployment is well below 5 percent, and the nations’ education system ranks in the top 10, according to Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) data. Yet the Netherlands’ growing immigrant populations—especially those of Turkish, Moroccan, and Surinamese descent—often end up on the lower education tracks after elementary school, with the result being lower levels of secondary school success and much lower levels of higher education enrollment. With government funding challenges and constrained public support, these students must rely on the heroic but underfunded efforts of NGOs like ECHO to increase their chances of success.
One final example from my own country, if only to show that the United States has a long way to go when it comes to helping students overcome such barriers:
Just a few weeks ago, an advocacy group called the Education Trust released a study that documents how the financial aid policies of American colleges, universities, states and the federal government combine to actually limit access to higher education for millions of low-income students in my country. The report, titled Priced Out, showed that the typical low-income American family must pay or borrow nearly three-fourths of its annual household income each year just to send one child to a four-year institution. Middle-class and high-income families fared much better, of course, contributing, respectively, just 27 percent and 14 percent of yearly earnings to higher education costs.
The same report analyzed data from hundreds of four-year colleges and universities in an effort to judge how many of them successfully served low-income students. To be judged successful, an institution had to meet three criteria:
First, it had to enroll a proportion of low-income students at least as high as the national average.
Second, it required students to pay a portion of their family income no greater than what the average middle-income student pays for a four-year degree.
Finally, it had to offer students at least a 50-50 chance at graduation.
And of the nearly 1,200 institutions examined, how many passed the test? Five.
Clearly, we have a lot to learn. And it’s important that we learn quickly, because fewer and fewer of our students will fit the traditional mold. In fact, the 21st century student runs the gamut—racially, ethnically, economically and socially … From recent secondary school graduate to displaced worker to second-career retiree … From part-time distance learner to full-time resident student … From workforce-certificate seeker to evening master’s degree student to doctoral candidate.
Speaking of these students as 21st century students is more than just a semantic exercise. We must recognize them as essential to our future. And we must shift the dialogue from a deficit model to a growth model, one in which all sectors—industry, government, education institutions—see these students as future leaders, taxpayers, and community contributors.
Clearly, the traditional, one-size-fits-all system of higher education won’t work for these students—not in any country. What’s needed are student-centered systems—ones that are accessible, flexible, accountable and committed to quality. Such systems must meet each student where she is and offer the support she needs to succeed. They must ensure quality by fostering genuine learning, not mere program completion. And they must truly prepare students for work—and for life—in an increasingly global society. These factors are what will define a higher education system that serves the 21st century student—a responsive system that acts as an effective engine for the development of our most precious global asset: human capital.
Of course, creating such systems is impossible without recognizing and embracing the importance of what EAN calls its four pillars: access, equity, diversity and inclusion.
Empowering access … promoting equity … fostering diversity and inclusion. These have always been the right things to do, of course—and they always will be. What’s different now—a fortunate and positive difference, in my opinion—is that doing the right thing isn’t just nice, it’s absolutely necessary. No one can succeed alone anymore. We live in a global, multicultural, multilingual society … an interconnected, instantaneously adaptive, constantly changing world, driven by economic and social forces that shift at the speed of a text message.
Certainly, this new world presents challenges to higher education in your country—as it does to virtually every social and cultural system and institution in every country. Change always presents challenges. The drive to foster student diversity and spread economic and social advancement won’t be a high-speed cruise on the autobahn. There will certainly be twists and turns and bumps in the road.
Let’s face it: We’re already hitting those bumps. The social pressures inherent in assimilating growing populations of immigrants … labor unrest fueled by the lingering economic slowdown … ongoing internal tensions caused by job loss and income disparity … the continued political disenfranchisement of certain population groups … all of these stubborn problems prove that the path to human progress is rarely smooth.
But movement along the path to global inclusion is inevitable—and technology is certainly speeding it up. Any doubts on that score can be dispelled by one look at the ongoing Facebook and Twitter revolutions in various nations. These nascent movements reflect an innate and universal human desire—for individual dignity, for the right of self-determination, for the chance to live, to learn and to build a future that is secure, stable and satisfying.
We all know that education is a key piece—indeed, perhaps the key piece—in making that happen. That’s why we must renew our commitment, not merely to serve the students whom we’ve always served, but to push open the doors of postsecondary education much wider. We must find ways to serve all of our citizens, so we can all benefit from the gains that they make. Now, more than ever, they need our best efforts; because now, more than ever, we need them to realize their full potential.
As educators and advocates, we also need each other now more than ever. Our countries, our cities, our universities and higher-ed systems—they all have much to learn from one another. I, for one, am very pleased and honored to be part of this global learning circle. My career has taken me from my roots in the U.S. to nations ranging from South Africa and Mozambique, to Russia and Ukraine, to many of the countries that those in this room call home. I’ve been privileged to learn from, and be a part of, the work of many of you in the drive to expand higher education access. I’m proud of what EAN has accomplished in its two decades of service … and I’m very enthusiastic about the future we’ll be working together to forge. It’s exciting and vitally important work. It is, in the very best sense of the term, world-changing work.
And so, in closing, I urge you to continue that work with all of your energy, to embrace the challenge and recommit yourselves to the task at hand. Let’s work together to build an adaptive, effective 21st century higher education system—one that reaches out to 21st century students and properly prepares them for success in the 21st century workforce and for full, active membership in our global society.
It’s a big challenge, but the payoff will be even bigger … not just for your students or even your country, but for all of society, and for decades to come.