Participation in higher education

Back in the dark ages when I was a student, I was one of the very small percentage of the population that had the privilege of a university education. We have come a long way since then, and by the middle of the current decade the participation rate in higher education had risen to 55 per cent. When the National Development Plan 2007-2013 was published, it included an investment programme for the sector that was based on an assumption of a further significant increase in participation, which the government subsequently declared should rise above 70 per cent. The NDP noted various developments which were likely to occur, including the expectation that ‘62% of net new jobs which employers are expected to create in 2010 are likely to require third level education, compared with less than 30% of existing jobs in 2001′ (p. 201).

Of course since then everything has changed. If we are honest we don’t really know what kind of jobs will be created in 2010 – we just fervently hope that there will be some – and we don’t know what skills will be needed for those jobs. This will depend on economic conditions, international investment trends and the degree to which we have been resolute and successful in developing a knowledge society and economy. It certainly seems right that we should aim to have a highly skilled population to enable new growth, but we cannot be sure whether the trends we thought we were going to observe before the current credit crisis emerged will actually materialise in quite that way.

But furthermore, we cannot ignore the fact that resources for higher education are being cut dramatically, as part of the general re-alignment of public funding. Whatever view we may take of this, one thing it makes inevitable is that we will be unable to increase numbers in the system, possibly at all. It is not even inconceivable that numbers will have to be reduced.

In this setting, we need to look again at participation targets and ask ourselves what levels of participation are required for national success, and what levels are likely to be affordable or capable of being resourced. Other things will enter this discussion, including the nature of funding and the re-introduction (or not) of tuition fees.

Ireland has benefited hugely from the higher levels of participation, and from at least some trend towards a student cohort more representative of the population at large. But there is no point pretending that participation will grow further if we have not properly assessed whether that is what we need to do and how it can be paid for. This will need to form part of the strategic review about to be undertaken of Irish higher education.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, society

One Comment on “Participation in higher education”

  1. ultan Says:

    I see the Minister is to present a memo concerning fees to Cabinet in April:

    Personally, I wish they’d just introduce the fees immediately. Moving just before local/EU elections will lead to more Govt indecision, backtracking and turnarounds.

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