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.

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3 Comments on “Can we increase access to higher education?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Ah yes, it is certainly worth a discussion. And in some ways I hope it gets no further that that, for all you will be doing is lifting hopes to be later smashed.
    You will/may remember that free second level education was made available to all at the end of the 60s, something which has been touted as being one of the reasons for our recent ‘successes’.
    But what did this really mean.
    Well, first it meant that Ireland- the republican bit of it- was 12 or so years behind in offering second when the NI & the UK were offering third. That took another 50 years.
    It meant that while expanding the numbers, the people who were from the families of the older cohort continued to receive the higher standard of education while the rest would have been far better off been given books and told to go home and read them. So all in all, the very notion that beyond those going to Uni’ were much better off just seems foolish.
    Next we have the fiction with the Universities version of free access. Best described as the fight between middle civil servant types, teachers gardai the nurses and those who could adjust their incomes to fit the county council income requirements, who it must be said was sent over the top by the covenanter. Both income adjuster and the covenanter figured in the tribunals.
    Basically we do not have a good track record with the sort of programme you and POTUS are advocating.

  2. Vincent Says:

    I ask your pardon for my earlier comment or at least the disheartened nature of it anyway. I am not normally a half empty sort, but the chapters of that Ryan report are getting to me. I should stop. But then what on earth would halt such happening again.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    Here at IT Sligo we have been striving to flexibilise our offerings for a long time. There are two major barriers that we encounter again and again:

    1) a system for funding HE that actively discriminates against any student who wishes to study according to a ‘non-standard’ mode – eg in the evenings or by distance education. Until the government develop a fair fees system that treats all types of student equally (as in the Australian HECS system) it will be very difficult to develop a system such as Ferdinand would like to see.

    2) the IT infrastructure adopted by the IT sector at least (and I suspect also in universities) makes it very difficult to operate the genuinely modular system of education that is required to underpin the system described.
    So – sort the money and the admin structures and then we might be able to provide what so many potential, but currently excluded, students are looking for. Its not rocket science, numerous countries across the world have done it – just compare the participation rates of those aged 23+ in Irish HE with just about any other OECD country!

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