Higher education participation: quality vs. quantity?

As a PS to my recent blog post on access to higher education, I see that the President of University College Cork, Michael Murphy, has said that we should focus on the quality of students rather than on the quantity. He expressed the fear that student were being admitted into university programmes as a result of the drive to increase participation, whose ‘academic abilities are not sufficient for the particular course.’ His message is that if we continue to drive up participation we shall encounter serious quality problems that will undermine the reputation of the Irish higher education system.

Perhaps another way of putting this is to say that as participation increases even more, the reality is that students will be targeted for a third level education whose academic achievements might suggest that they will find it hard to succeed in their studies.

On the whole it seems to me that we could, if we had the resources, educate a still higher proportion of the population; there are, I believe, many young people out there who do have the talents and the ability, but who have assumed (perhaps because of their backgrounds) that they could not proceed to higher education and who have not directed their efforts for that purpose. This means that they can still succeed in a university or college, provided they get strong and individual support and some remedial teaching. This is expensive, but it is also usually successful: in DCU many access students had an unpromising academic history at school, and yet they have a strong record of success in their degree programmes at university.

So maybe I would qualify Michael Murphy’s statement slightly, and suggest that if we want more quantity together with high quality, we need to accept that it is expensive to do it right; but also rewarding, and I suspect that any public money invested will be repaid easily.

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10 Comments on “Higher education participation: quality vs. quantity?”

  1. Radu Grigore Says:

    I strongly doubt that a lack of “academic abilities” explains why students don’t do well in universities. I believe it is more a matter of attitude. But I can only point to anecdotes. A student asked me during the first lecture, in an indignant voice: “So we are supposed to know X by the end of this course?” The student was not thrilled that she’ll know something new in a couple of months time, but rather disgusted. Needless to say, I don’t get it.

    I wonder why so few students view university as a great environment for personal development, which it is. Many view it as chore.


    • Oh, that’s a very pessimistic view! In my experience there are many students who are engaged by ideas and want to involve themselves in the excitement of knowledge. I hope you do get a chance to see some of that too!

      • Radu Grigore Says:

        Every year there are many students that come to the programming contest I organize. Some even go the extra mile and spend a significant amount of time preparing to represent UCD in international contests. Yet others used to come to weekly problem solving meetings I organized, without being under any obligation to do so.

        However, that’s beside my point. Perhaps it will be clearer if I’m more verbose.

        A system, like the university system, has better and worse parts. Improving the system may aim at improving the better parts, thus accentuating the contrast, or it may aim at improving the worse parts, thus reducing the contrast, or it may be aimless, which is another way of saying that the aim is `uniform’ improvement. I started from the assumption that it is better to improve the worse parts. You may disagree with this assumption or not. In any case, it’s interesting to see the conclusions it points to.

        First, to improve the worse parts you must know what the worse parts are. That is why I said that, in my opinion, the attitude of many students is a far greater problem than their academic abilities. You may disagree or not with this, but your comment doesn’t make this clear: Arguing that X is big (number of enthusiast students) in no way affects the truth of Y>>Z (number of non-enthusiast students is much bigger than the number of stupid students). In fact, I would argue that my opinion is clearly optimistic, since there’s little you can do about natural stupidity (if there is such a thing!), while attitude can be fixed. In other words, I am optimistic because I do not believe students abilities are lacking.

        Second, once we know attitude is a problem (and we don’t—it’s just my opinion and I’m not aware of any hard data) the fix seems to be `motivational’ courses or courses that spend more time on the motivational parts, rather than `remedial’ courses.

        In fact, I think it’s obvious that `remedial’ courses cannot possibly be a good long-term solution: It’s like planning to do a good job and then fix it later, rather than planning to do a good job in the first place. Of course, such courses might make sense as a (temporary) response to an extraordinary situation, such as the current economic crisis.

  2. Vincent Says:

    I cannot help but feel when Aristotle opened the Lyceum his former colleagues at the Academy went tutting about the dumbing down and the dilution of the pure.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Yes Perry, but today one can be certain the same person posted both comments. The other day, with me, not so. Any comment of mine will never have a wordpress link.

  4. japhet Says:

    pls help me to find how the quality n quantity of education influences the growth of education in the world


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