Can we increase access to higher education?
In a previous post in this blog, I looked at the targets that have been set for participation in higher education and looked at whether these were desirable or achievable. In particular, I considered the government’s target in Ireland to raise participation from just under 60 per cent to 72 per cent. From where I am right now, I would have to say that, quite regardless of any analysis of the benefits and disadvantages of such an increase, there is no realistic chance of achieving it as we cut budgets for higher education and attempt to live with scarce resources.
However, it may be worth noting that higher education institutions still offer a fairly inflexible portfolio of programmes, and this has a bearing on the question I am raising here. The overwhelming majority of students study full-time (at least officially), and there is an expectation that they will proceed to a degree by closely defined pathways that keep them in a university for three to four years; unless they go on to postgraduate study, in which case they remain longer, but also for a clearly defined period. This model has a good few operational, financial and also pedagogical advantages, but it is based on expectations of social status and conduct that may now be a little unrealistic.
As we look around for ways in which we can realistically make higher education a target for more people, it may be worth noting President Obama’s ‘Year of College for All’ strategy, first expressed by the President in an address to the US Congress in February 2009:
‘… Tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.’
There has been a mixed response to this plan from educationalists, and of course it will not necessarily be easy to find the right educational programmes for those availing of this more condensed form of higher education. Nevertheless, both educators and social policy experts have agreed that the ability of many people to access colleges would be much greater if they did not have to face the cost both in money and time of traditional degree programmes.
I suspect that, in the context also of growing unemployment and re-skilling needs that we will also need to look again at the models of tertiary education that we currently offer to society. It may not be at all realistic to grow participation rates to over 70 per cent on current pedagogical and funding models, but there may be a way to increase access considerably if we think flexibly about what we can offer. At any rate it’s worth a discussion.