Congress 2016 Day #3 – Learning outcomes and the Weingarten Hypothesis

Two very interesting sessions today, but for two very different reasons. The first featured research by Mary Catharine Lennon on learning outcomes. This is a hot topic in Canadian policy circles, part of a push for universities to demonstrate to government and the public the value created by their teaching activities. Lennon suggests that we’re in a “hype cycle” on learning outcomes, where a peak of expectations is followed by a trough of disillusionment. Many jurisdictions around the world have implemented some form of learning outcomes measurement, and have tipped over into the disillusionment phase. Ontario and Canada, I would suggest, are a little behind, with many arguing for some form of learning outcome assessment in the various provincial higher education systems.

Lennon notes that in all of the international jurisdictions she examined, there is a huge disparity between the expectations for learning outcomes and the actual evidence for impact on teaching and learning quality. This is at least partially due to the fact that the evaluation stage – where a jurisdiction examines whether the policy actually worked – is often missed. Still, the available evidence suggests that learning outcome measures can have an effect on teaching and learning, especially at the subject or course level. Learning outcomes are the least effective – and occasionally harmful – in helping universities align themselves with labour market demands. In all cases, system level learning outcomes are problematic. These policies, suggest Lennon, suffer from misalignment, where expectations outstrip actual effects; misapplication, where stakeholders resist the measures and they fail; and misdirection, where inappropriate goals are articulated for outcomes policies.

The CSSHE held its presidential plenary session, with a panel of present and past CSSHE presidents, the president of the American Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), and Harvey Weingarten, CEO of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). The topic was “Reflections on Universities and the Public Good.” Weingarten gave a variation of a talk that he has presented more than a few times over the past few years, what I call the “Weingarten Hypothesis.” Essentially, his idea is that higher education in its current form is unsustainable, and that a radical realignment is needed to return to secure footing. This time around, he added an element that I found surprsing; that “no one believes” universities are now creators of public goods. Not students, not government, not the public. As evidence for this statement he cites several anecdotal conversations with unnamed politicians; a slate of policies he terms, “government shots across the bow” of universities; and the comment sections of Globe & Mail articles on university issues. This last one is perplexing, because if the comments sections of any major newspaper are accurate representations of public opinion, we’re all doomed.

The interesting thing about Weingarten’s Hypothesis is that it is a near-perfect – and one suspects, somewhat accidental – distillation of the broader neo-liberal project in the public sector: the gradual undermining of all organizations and institutions that are publicly funded, and the reconfiguration of the “public good” in exclusively market terms. So, for example, the most important public good produced by universities is job-ready graduates. Governments increasingly understand policy in these terms, which helps explain their dissatisfaction with universities as institutions still (although perhaps less and less) resistant to to external technocratic control. So, people who work in and study universities have a choice. They can kowtow to this gloomy conception of public good and attempt to operate within its limits, thereby granting it a certain legitimacy. Or, we can begin articulating alternatives that both protect the important principles that underpin our universities, while responding to evolving societal needs. Weingarten appears to favour the former approach. I hope people will choose the latter.

And with that, Academic Matters’ time at Congress 2016 is at an end. It has been an enjoyable and informative few days, and the organizers – of both the CSSHE program and the wider conference – are to be commended. Until next year!