20 Sep Exporting The Wisconsin Idea – British Educators Study UW for Role Model of the Future
Editor’s Note: During July 2003, two British education officals visited Madison to determine whether the “Wisconsin Idea” can be exported. At a time when many Wisconsin leaders are studying how to import ideas from other cities and regions, it is ironic that across the Atlantic, the British are faced with the same challenges and have turned to Wisconsin to export an idea – our education system.
MADISON,WI – The personal, the political, the pragmatic. When you find threads of all three running through a policy review, you know it’s serious.
Two of the most influential people in British higher education – Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and Richard Lambert, currently heading a review of university/business links for the chancellor of the exchequer – swept into the salubrious, lakeside city of Madison in the lush, liberal but rather remote state of Wisconsin less than three weeks ago on a mission.
The University of Wisconsin (UW) is a unique example of merging rival universities under one umbrella and dictating centrally what each college in the statewide system can teach and research, and with what level of funding. From the world-renowned, research-heavy Madison to the smallest, 500-student, two-year UW access college in rural Richland, each campus in the single, public-sector university “system” knows its place.
Now England’s higher education chiefs are looking closely at whether the “Wisconsin idea” can be transferred across the Atlantic, and to what extent. They were also briefed on UW’s strong business links and lucrative research spin-offs.
There is already a storm of controversy over whether the UK government could force mergers, restrict top-end research to selected universities and relegate others to mere teaching institutions in these times of ever-diminishing resources. And now that Lambert and Newby are publicly praising the quasi-federal Wisconsin model, speculation is rife.
It was a timely visit for Lambert, the former editor of the Financial Times, who will finish his Treasury-commissioned review of university governance and business links in October. For Newby, it was not just a practical lesson in stretching limited funding further, it was a rendezvous with familiar places and faces.
When he was a visiting faculty member at Madison in the early 1980s, one of his colleagues in the sociology department was Dr Cora Marrett, who is now senior vice-president for academic affairs for UW. Looking out across the elegant Madison campus from the UW central headquarters last week, she said:”Newby saw the evolution of the UW system. Unity and collaboration are very much on his agenda.”
I do not get a sense that they are going to smash everything up in England, but radical modification of the system, yes,” she says.
The two competing public-sector universities in Wisconsin merged in 1971. There are 26 campuses scattered across the state that are now all part of one University of Wisconsin system, centrally managed by a grand “board of regents” and ultimately administered by the state legislature.
Only two campuses, UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, offer doctorates. The tier below teaches up to masters level; the one below that four-year bachelor’s degrees; and the bottom tier is essentially two-year “starter” colleges.
Madison received 80% of the research funding allocated to the state from the federal government in Washington DC and it houses the only schools of law, medicine, pharmacy and veterinary science in UW. The philosophy is that the smaller campuses have limited research facilities and a restricted curriculum but more access to funding, support and collaborative degree programmes than they would if they stood alone. The aim is not just to spread thinning funds more effectively, but also to give the maximum access to degree courses for students of every age, culture and income.
Marrett says: “There is something to be gained from bringing together a diverse set of institutions and making them play to their own strengths, but for the collective benefit. And I think there is a very strong interest in England in having highly competitive research universities – and that means being pretty selective, because you cannot diffuse the funding across everyone and have the excellence.”
With only five million people in the state and two universities becoming one, with 160,000 students, Wisconsin is clearly being looked at as a potential model for regional mergers and collaborations in England. And although it may be surprising to British observers that such a radical idea is coming out of the sticks of the American Midwest, it is typical of Wisconsin.
As the president of the UW system, Dr Katharine Lyall, says: “Middle of nowhere? We are the middle of everywhere. The attitude of collective responsibility dates back to the socialist Scandinavian settlers who streamed to the region in the 1700s, and still prevails today.
“Back in the 1920s, Wisconsin set down the framework for a system of social security payments, workers’ compensation and healthcare support that were adopted nationwide. Madison is often voted top for quality of life in US magazine surveys, drawing top-flight academic staff who could earn a pile more in bigger cities or the private sector.
When not studying, students alternate between roller-skating along the promenade, drinking beer at the lakeside student union bar, hiking, yachting or upholding a strong Madison tradition of aggressive protest that dates back to the Vietnam war.
But questions remain – such as, if the UW system is so great, why has it not been more widely exported before? And what about charges from senior British academics who visited the university in earlier years of an overbearing bureaucracy and micro-management that stifles research initiative and teaching ambition?” We spend 5.8 cents of every dollar on administration, the lowest in the country,” says Lyall. She argues that strict management of the curriculums of the individual campuses is essential to eliminate duplication and ensure quality. But it is clear she would prefer less administrative interference from the state legislature.
As for exporting the UW system, Lyall is aware that in such a territorial area of life it is difficult, and she has a warning for the Brits. “Compromises always chafe. Acceptance depends on whether the government redirects institutions and puts in extra investment, or if it is just a negative experience. I would not expect any institution in the world to respond to a net loss,” she says.
Wisconsin created its system before there was too much overlap. Although there were plenty of opponents even back then, “doing a Wis” in other US states or other countries now, when universities are so much more mature, is undoubtedly many times more loaded. Discussion and agreement help, even if it is only about the inevitability of shrinking funds forcing collaboration.
Wisconsin is struggling with a state budget deficit. It has cut $250m(£150m), or 12.5% of the funding it gives to UW, over the next two years. The university has recouped $150m (£90.3m) of that by putting up the fees it charges students. The board of regents is in a dilemma about whether their measures to cope will simply encourage creeping privatization. At one point, it temporarily froze admissions of undergraduates in protest.
Issues such as this, selective research designation and degree course collaboration indicate that “we are thinking of higher education increasingly as an industry in this country. That offends many academics,” says Lyall. “We hope that the pure learning and research will not be lost.
“Some detractors also argue that the flagship Madison campus props up the UW system, not the other way around. With its world-beating human embryonic stem-cell discovery in 1998, its cutting-edge biotechnology research into genetically modified crops and its pioneering work on vitamins and drugs, Madison is a world away from the small, rural UW campuses. It gets the third largest amount of federal research funding in the US, behind the private sector Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the University of California Los Angeles.
But Madison chancellor Dr John Wiley acknowledges Madison’s gains from the UW system. He believes that if all the campuses were squabbling for individual funds from the state legislature, Madison would lose out to the larger Milwaukee. And duplication of too much research and teaching on other campuses would ultimately dilute Madison’s income from state and industry, even if it were independent.
Meanwhile, Wiley believes Britain can learn a lot from Wisconsin’s links with business. It has an affiliate arm called the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (Warf) that patents and licenses just about every scientific breakthrough made at the university. On a portfolio worth $1bn (£600m), $30m(£18m) in annual earnings is fed back into the university for unrestricted seed-corn research funding, which Wiley says is invaluable.
Many patents date from before the First World War, but Wiley points out that at least half the value of the “spin-off” portfolio has been added in the past 10 years with more recent breakthroughs.
The university holds regular summits with small, regional and big business, where everyone thrashes out how they can work together on joint projects and applied research.
“You have to be on speaking terms with business and you have to be willing or interested in doing research that is relevant to what they care about. No one buys a Chevrolet because General Motors needs the money. But if you are studying a better class of turbine, then of course Rolls-Royce is going tobe interested in your idea,” he says.
Which is another way of telling the Brits to cut their coat according totheir cloth.
From field to lecture hall
Three topics dominated the local news in Wisconsin one typical day last week. The University of Wisconsin-Madison had been awarded $10m (£6m) by a national cancer charity to improve the computer system invented on campus to monitor the sick. Elsewhere, the state supreme court ruled that, yes, the electricity company was responsible for causing dairy cows to fall ill and stop producing after they were exposed to power leaks from corroded cables. And the high school rodeo state final in Richland Center was quite a shindig.
Seventy miles from Madison, past rolling fields full of Fresians, silage silos and wholesale cheese shops, Richland is another world. But what connects the two is that they are both part of the UW system and, theoretically at least, dependent on each other.
UW-Richland Center is a two-year campus. Most of the students are local and live at home to save money while they start undergraduate life. Deer and wild turkeys often stroll across the grass outside the lecture theatre and classroom windows. After two years, most students apply to go to one of the four-year UW campuses to finish the second half of their degree. Madison is the hardest to get into and many will try for less prestigious UW colleges at Oshkosh, Green Bay or Eau Claire.
Richland Center’s dean, Dr Deborah Cureton, believes the spread-out system takes the pressure off oversubscribed Madison while providing access to a university-quality education for a far-flung and often under ambitious community. “We offer the core courses but we are so small we do not specialize,” she says. If students earn enough credits at Richland they are guaranteed access to one of the larger UW campuses to finish their degree. “We have quite a lot of older students here who are retraining or picking up where they left off from an unfinished degree years ago, or who never got the chance to go to college before,” says Cureton.
In a tough economic climate and a struggling farming community, Richland puts up with less autonomy in return for the security of the “big voice” and funds of the UW system. “We do not have the resources to be too ambitious,” Cureton says.
This story was written by Joanna Walters for the The Guardian. It is reproduced with the permission of The Guardian.