An end to higher education expansion

It is, I believe, time to raise one uncomfortable issue affecting our system of higher education: is it still conceivable that as a country we can or should meet the current government target of widening participation in higher education to 72 per cent of each age cohort? Ireland already has one of the highest participation rates – now over 60 per cent – in the developed world. The arguments in favour of continuing this trend and reaching the target include the desirability of a highly trained and educated workforce, and the capacity that this would give the country to sustain a high value knowledge society and economy.

But it may also be right to query the target, for reasons that include the following. Higher education provided for such a large proportion of the population must inevitably become more training than education-focused. There is an overlap between the two, but they are not identical. Secondly, unless we actually provide higher education for the entire population, an ‘excluded’ cohort of 30 per cent or so will become a visibly disadvantaged group, which may have the perverse effect of increasing the marginalisation of the poorer sections of society; even now we are seeing that while participation is at around 100 per cent for the wealthy, it remains very low for the least prosperous in society. Ironically, a serious effort to increase participation by the disadvantaged may require a slow-down in the overall rate.

But finally, it is becoming clear that, at least for now, we cannot afford to educate so many students. The budgets of higher education institutions are currently being devastated by public funding cuts, and the result is that a larger group of students is experiencing an increasingly frayed education with real resourcing and quality issues.

Continuing the expansion of higher education has been an article of faith in Ireland. It may be time to revisit that objective.

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10 Comments on “An end to higher education expansion”

  1. John Says:

    Just a sort of side-comment on this important issue: Academics and their institutions should remember they’re not the only sources of knowledge. There are lots of other ways to acquire, develop and share knowledge.

  2. John II Says:

    A reintroduction of undergraduate fees may address the last of FVP’s concerns, but resourcing is only one perspective. What impact does enrolment at the margin of ability have on academic performance?

    Wouldn’t a funding system where “money follows the student” (whether a private fee or otherwise), present universities with a dilemma, where protection of their (volume based) income and academic standards become mutually exclusive?

    In a perverse but not dissimilar scenario, some UK universities have been pushed into favouring the former.

    • I’m not sure whether giving the money to the student would create the dilemma you describe. The position already is that students can make choices between competing programmes, and the money follows them. The difference in giving it to the student to pay as fees to the university could have two effects: it would allow price competition; and on the other hand it would make cutting budgets politically more difficult for government, as it would mean cutting the money that flows directly to the voter, rather than the money paid to a higher education institution.

      Kevin has already answered the ability question. The problem is that the CAO points system is a rather bogus market that distorts preferences.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Someone, I forget who, suggested an alternative mechanism. Lets say one decides what the minimum academic requirements are for medicine. For simplicity, say its 500 Leaving Cert points. You take everyone who wants to do medicine and who meets the requirements and allocate the places using a lottery. After all, why is it better to prefer someone with 540 over 520 points when, by construction of the requirements, they are both perfectly capable of doing the course? This might remove some of the bogus-ness of the points market.

        • Ah, Kevin – I think that someone was actually me. I made that proposal about three years ago – i.e. set the minimum entry points and then allocate places to all those above the level through a lottery. It got some media attention at the time, but it was in the pre-blog days…

        • iainmacl Says:

          its used in the netherlands as the system

  3. kevin denny Says:

    If you are enrolling at the margin of ability then, by definition, you will lower the ability of the student body somewhat. But that does not mean lowering standards because the standard required for entry is not based on academic need but simply on the supply of places. So the reason you needed 570 points to get into medicine was not that you needed to be that good to do medicine it was just supply & demand. Some work that I have done with colleagues suggests that people who are admitted with lower than normal points (through Access programs) do fine.
    The demand based system you mention, where students are given a voucher and they can take it anywhere they want, has been studied in developing countries. There is the hazard you mention & so one needs to monitor standards. The price of freedom, alas, is eternal vigilance.

  4. “Higher education provided for such a large proportion of the population must inevitably become more training than education-focused. There is an overlap between the two, but they are not identical.”

    I think you are the first academic to recognise this issue. IMHO this is a much more practical way to address employment shortfalls of a lot of us that were forced to leave school early,(particularly older 40years+ people with time left for working).

    As a possible source of new funding I think colleges should design programmes with particular industries to train potential employee,s. I know some will argue there are no job,s, but the eternal optimist in me believes that if you build it, they will come.

    Anyway if colleges can design industry led training programmes as opposed to only educating people, the colleges should be allowed to bid for government funding, indeed a substantial amount of the 1 billion annually to Fas could be the source of this extra income or possibly the individuals might pay for this type of training themselves.

  5. […] to do more with less. The suggestion that perhaps participation in higher education has already gone far enough seems to be considered politically […]

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