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jjjWe reached out to professor James Steven Fairweather from the College of education at Michigan State University while he gave guest lectures in Finland for MARIHE students. Before joining Michigan State University, Dr. Fairweather worked as a professor and Senior Scientist at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University and was a Program Manager in Education at Stanford Research Institute. He obtained his B.A. degree from Michigan State University and the Ph.D. in Higher Education from Stanford University. James is recognized as a leading scholar of faculty work, industry-university partnerships, and reforming undergraduate STEM education.

Interview with Dr. Fairweather on Politics and Higher Education in the USA

We reached out to professor James Steven Fairweather from the College of education at Michigan State University while he gave guest lectures in Finland for MARIHE students. Before joining Michigan State University, Dr. Fairweather worked as a professor and Senior Scientist at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University and was a Program Manager in Education at Stanford Research Institute. He obtained his B.A. degree from Michigan State University and the Ph.D. in Higher Education from Stanford University. James is recognized as a leading scholar of faculty work, industry-university partnerships, and reforming undergraduate STEM education.

In the class, James came across as a very honest, to the point and relaxed person so we wanted to know his opinion about turbulent political events in the US and how it might affect the future of higher education. However, soon after starting the conversation, we not only discussed the political changes but were deep in the discussion on higher education financing, internationalization and his experience at Stanford, Michigan and Penn State Universities.

Professor, with American presidents changed and new government positions being filled with more conservative politicians, how do you see these changes affecting higher education, particularly internationalization?

In the US there is a pretty strong commitment to internationalisation. I think on institutional level it is primarily focused on students - to bring students in and have students go out. However, there are also a lot of international faculty and staff, and there is probably more concern there, because of the visas. Other than that, I don’t think it will have a major impact on higher education internationalization in the US, because the political system in not set up in such a way that a premier can tell a ministry of education that we are stopping with internationalization. There is no national way of doing that. Additionally, I think universities decided that they are by and large opponents to this administration and if anything, they might even go the other way.

If you look at Michigan State University three years ago, there were 300 Chinese undergraduate students. Last year there were 3000 – ten times as many in 3 years. Partly it is because the University wants to do it and want to get more money, but also partly because programs become better known in China and there is no reason for MSU to reduce the number of international students no matter what the national government is.

Thank you professor. However, it seems that American universities are not actively recruiting international students abroad. Could you tell a bit more about how American universities approach internationalization and student recruitment?

The US universities primarily recruit through their reputations and not so much through direct recruitment. When they do direct recruitment I think it tends to be for graduate level, because they have specific programs they want people to know about. Sure, all those places will advertise their programs, but they are also recruiting from all over the country. That is such a big operation that in some ways it is comparable to international recruitment. Also many institutions feel pressure, particularly public, to serve the locality. So If they have very big programs that recruit internationally, then the people at the state start asking why are we supporting it.

We typically do not have many institutions that rely heavily on international recruitment for attracting revenues. Universities do it because they think it is good for the students to have exposure to people from different countries rather than thinking “If we do not have 20% more students internationally, we have financial problems”. Whereas if you look at places like Cambridge and Oxford when Britain voted to leave the EU, 15% of students decide not to go because they got the in-country tuition when they were part of the EU. So that is a big problem for them. So they will have to be much more aggressive about recruiting. I think the other part of it is that in some sense the big or the most famous universities…their reputation is their recruitment. So really the places that could use more international students tend to be either as not well known or they do not have a lot of resources to do that kind of aggressive international recruitment so they really rely on personal relations.

What would also be probably worth knowing is that so many of these kinds of arrangements are started by individuals. So if someone actually had a personal connection, let’s say in Russia, it would be more something that was built because of that instead of an institution deciding on building a relationship. Over the time it becomes an institutionalized activity, but many of these things start because of the individuals. I think you also see some of these relationships are not institutional, they are within disciplines. So like, Michigan State, is a very famous college of education. They have a partner at one of the big Chinese education institutions. But it is not a university partnership. It is for that college.

Thank you. Many of MARIHE students a considering to pursue a PhD after completing MARIHE program and some would be interested to do it in the US. Could you please briefly tell us about your PhD experience at Stanford? Moreover, in your opinion, what are some of the important factors that should be considered when choosing a PhD program?

When I went there, there were a lot and still are a lot of famous people in higher education. The reputation of the education there was really dependent on the faculty having joint appointments in other fields. Education wasn’t prestigious there, but if most of the faculty were also in the business school and in organizational psychology… and they were. So what happened was that I got a really good education in social science and research methods, but there was really only one person who did research particularly in higher education.

Since then I taught at two places with large faculties in higher education–Penn State and Michigan State. I think they do much better job at socialising what the career alternatives were. Moreover, at Michigan State we would help some less wealthy students with national conferences, sometimes international. I had none of that at Stanford. That was all considered a personal issue. So Stanford has a lot of resources and it is a famous place so it helps with a job search. But by and large it was overly theoretical for someone interested in the field that had an application.

In fact, I ended up working for Stanford Research Institute, which is a separate organization under the same board of trustees, because all the statisticians were theoreticians. If you actually wanted to study education, you had to go and work at that institute. It is different now. They have hired people who do policy stuff, but when I was there, they were almost non-existent. I liked the people, I liked the students, but I was pretty convinced when I left that I did not want to work in a place that was so removed from the field.

Glad to have gone there when it was 1000 dollars’ in tuition per quarter (a lot cheaper than today!), but I don’t think I got a particularly great training in higher ed. So more in methods and a lot of theory whereas in Michigan State we have 12 people on the faculty who study higher education and it is certain that one of your interests will match somebody, even international comparative work, but when there is one person or two it is problematic for many students…if that person does exactly what you want to do, that would be okay.

With regard to choosing a PhD program – it depends what area do you want to work in. And the answer is…what are the really good higher “ed” programs. I would say Stanford is not an optimal choice. There are few people who are doing research in the very specific areas, and if this is exactly what you want to do, it suffices. But if you are trying to develop your interests or you think you might go in administration instead of teaching, well…there are a lot better places to go. And it is because of the programs, not the institutions.

Interesting indeed…sounds like a warning. You said you are glad you gone to Stanford when it was 1000 dollars’ in tuition per quarter. Last year total outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. was $1.2 trillion – “the second-highest level of consumer debt behind only mortgages” . Do you think this funding system is sustainable? What is the likelihood that the US will change its higher education funding approach in the next few decades?

This is a really big topic. Most of the students have loans, but they are not the big ones. Furthermore, the loans are affecting students in different ways. Students who want to go to the really famous colleges are going to go anyway. Other people deciding to go to the university will choose less expensive ones like in-state. I think that at the graduate level a lot of support is coming from the institution, and a lot of it is not loans. Some of it is, but some of it are grants, so you actually get a slightly different picture of what it actually costs and what it looks like in paper. Moreover, I think it’s really affecting students’ choice of their major.

Michigan State University has a lot of programs in the teacher’s education, and the last 3-4 years the number of enrolments is going down because teachers don’t make as much money as doctors and engineers and lawyers, and what’s happening is that if the students feel like they are going to have a lot of debt it’s affecting the kind of field they are going to. And that’s not particularly healthy. I think you see the very big effect on people who have never gone to college, first generation students or people from low income families because they tend to look at the publicity about the loan expenses, so they don't even apply. Actually those groups have a pretty good support, especially loans for the low income people. So you tend to see fewer and fewer of them applying and going to university. But politically I think that there is great feeling that universities are charging too much money and of course the prestige involved.

It is cheaper to have part-time faculty and teaching assistants, and one of the things universities are doing to lower their costs is to higher part-time teachers, but the question is what is the quality of the experience? It does not mean you can’t have a good teacher, but it probably means that those people are not tied to the department, probably do not have votes in the curriculum design, so it is unclear how it will actually end up affecting students. Apart from their loans, it might end up changing their student experience. I do think that there has been a big shift over time away from grants and toward loans, that is very much like the states giving less money to the operation of public institutions, so parents and students are picking up a bigger share of the cost. I think, 30 years ago people felt that things went up and down, when the economy is good the state gave more funding, universities now stop thinking like that. I think that at some point there is a maximum amount that the state will give them, and it’s happening now.

Everyone is struggling with this cost issue, but it’s a little bit like healthcare. People do not respond to cost in a way that economics say they should. Harvard is more expensive but they get more people applying every year, they can charge whatever they want to charge. Public universities are still cheaper, but public universities have the fastest increase in tuition fee. So if you ask “how cheap is this?” you get one answer, if you ask “how fast is the cost going up” you get a different answer. And that’s the political problem, because if you live in CA and we have these programs when you can save money for your kids’ education, you could invest that money so you have enough money to pay for 4 years of education; but by the time the kid is going to college, it now is worth only one year, because the tuition increased so much. So, politically it is a very big problem. One of the challenges that makes it quite odd is that for people who are like me or a little younger than me – it did not cost them so much to go to school. I think it is not just the debt, I think it is the whole idea that changing the conversation from “here are the benefits of education” to “here are the costs of education”.

Thank you very much, I’m sure this interview will be useful for the readers interested in higher education. And, finally, our last question – what movie about higher education would you recommend the readers to watch?

One of the really good ones is a movie called “Paper Chase”, and would definitely recommend that one.

Interview was prepared by Ekaterina Minaeva and Anete Veidemane (MARIHE-5 students).

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