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14th Transatlantic Dialogue: Reputation, public opinion and accountability in higher education

10 July 2014

Thirty rectors and presidents of higher education institutions from Canada, the US and Europe gathered in Toronto, Canada, from 25 to 27 June for the 14th Transatlantic Dialogue (TAD), a bi-regional leadership event that has underpinned EUA’s cooperation with the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) for many years.

Photo: AUCCFocusing on the theme “Reputation, public opinion and accountability”, panel and small group discussions were held on a range of interwoven topics: societal and political expectations of the higher education sector, trust in the higher education sector, as well as measuring and communicating results and the implications for university governance.

From the European perspective, a number of current developments were reflected in this discussion, including the cuts in funding for universities in many European countries, mergers and excellence initiatives, the pressure to define and measure learning outcomes and research performance, pressures regarding labour market insertion of graduates and transparency tools such as the newly released U-Multirank.

Counterparts in North America shared many of the same pressures as European institutions, albeit with different considerations regarding how their institutions are funded and governed. The topic of the composition of governance boards was raised for example, and the difficulty of leaders to balance the demands of “internal stakeholders” (academics and students) with “external stakeholders” (private sector and policy makers) was a clear point of tension. Both European and North American rectors and presidents agreed that while university autonomy is essential to a thriving HE system, policy and public demands for accountability are on the rise. There is a perceived pressure on institutions to produce graduates who are work-ready, and for immediate research results. In this respect, there seemed to be a common struggle for institutions to develop purposeful performance metrics.

In addition, the importance of communication in the higher education sector was also discussed. Given the role of ICT and globalisation in socialising knowledge and the rise of non-traditional providers of higher education, universities are increasingly under pressure to define and defend the value proposition.

The question was posed, “why should students, families, companies and governments invest in higher education institutions?” and “what is their added value in providing teaching, research and knowledge transfer, given the proliferation of alternative sources for acquiring knowledge?”. Interesting examples were shared on how institutions in North America and Canada use social media to connect to different stakeholder groups and also raise public awareness for their local and international impact, and general added value.  

The TAD marked an important continuance of EUA-ACE-AUCC cooperation; beyond the interest to provide a forum for university leaders across the Atlantic (one of the prime purposes of the TAD), the three associations have also used TAD to share perspectives on current policy developments. In 2012, the associations discussed at length the implications of the AHELO project undertaken by the OECD.

This year, there was discussion around the possible implications of ongoing trade negotiations for higher education, in particular the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – TTIP, a topic that EUA has been monitoring, that could potentially impact the higher education sector, albeit in undefined ways at present.

Photo: AUCC

European University Association (EUA)

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