Are we seeing the end of higher education expansion?

One of the constant themes of higher education in most countries over recent decades has been its continuing expansion. After World War 2 a degree was still the expectation or aspiration of only a very small proportion of the population in western societies, usually those coming from a privileged background. Then, as one of the later consequences of the welfare state, came the so-called ‘massification’ of the sector, with higher education opening up to people and groups who had previously largely been excluded. Over recent years many governments have suggested further targets for expansion – in Ireland it became government policy to target a participation rate of 72 per cent of any given age cohort.

But this expected further expansion is not now happening in some countries, on the face of it largely for funding reasons: governments simply cannot afford to pay for it. Ironically right now it would, if the money were there, be relatively easy to let the system expand, as an increasing number of young people, unsure about their career prospects in the aftermath of the recession, are anxious to go to university. So governments face the dilemma of either pushing ahead with a further upskilling of the labour force, or facing the funding reality and cutting back. Only few will attempt the feat the Irish government has in mind, of increasing participation aggressively while paying less to the universities for providing the education.

The issue has just been highlighted in Britain, with both Universities UK and individual institutions indicating that this year they will not be offering the same number of places through ‘clearing‘ (the system used to match vacancies with aspiring students after universities have allocated places to the initial successful applicants), or even any places at all.

In Ireland the universities are having to examine very carefully whether they really can increase their intake any further in the light of continuing funding (and staffing) reductions, and with the real fear that these reductions are already seriously compromising quality.

Outside of the specific funding considerations, it should be noted that we have not really addressed in any coherent way what level of participation in higher education is workable or desirable. It is clear beyond doubt that there is further scope for increasing substantially the intake from disadvantaged groups in society, but whether an overall increase is desirable or sustainable, and what impact this would have on the overall mix of qualifications and career patterns, has not really been properly discussed, and it needs to be. Right now, it seems to me to be highly unlikely that the expansion of higher education will, or can, continue.

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8 Comments on “Are we seeing the end of higher education expansion?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I afraid the position at the bottom of your post is a case of bolting the stable door after the horse has long gone. Nowadays, any employment beyond the menial has HE requirements from the employers. And the reality for the future is that the 26% of non attenders are condemned to a life in recept of the dole whether they like it or not. The other 2% being so wealthy they can ignore it totally.

    • Vincent, I might have agreed with you two or three years ago – but not now. As financial reasons bring about a reversal, possibly, of HE expansion, these issues become topical again.

      • Vincent Says:

        I dont know about that now. Overall, at the moment we are at or beyond saturation point such that a BA twenty years ago now requires an MA. I think this will cause Grads to view the craftsman-trades as an ideal destination which will knock out all those who are currently entering.
        A bit like in the 60s when the leaving* ceased to have the currency of former years.
        I think this is unstoppable and the only question is whether you lot can add ‘apps’ in an efficient way to allow up-skilling. So no more of the HDip’s lasting two years and more one month crash courses with virtually one-to-one TA’s.

        • Vincent Says:

          And no more the idiotic expectation of 2:1s for what have nothing to do with on going academics and where the general public can enter the professional courses on the payment of a fee.

  2. Al Says:

    This idea that HE equals upskilling doesn’t do justice to skills and skills development.

    Is it possible that some employers would look at someone with third level qualifications as having compromised their ability to work?

  3. kevin denny Says:

    I often wondered where the 72 percent target came from. After a long period of study, funded by a vast research grant, the lab-rats in my laboratory (or graduate students as they are known technically) worked out that it is based on the same complex algorithm used to deduce the “Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything” which, as everyone knows, is 42. The HEA apparently borrowed time on Deep Thought for that one.
    In other words, the number is pretty arbitrary. What is not arbitrary is that we get the right people into university. That is people with the talents that will benefit the most from higher education. Talent does not equate with Leaving Certificate points & although it includes cognitive ability it also includes factors like the capacity for hard work, drive, resilience and imagination. Does our admission system deliver that? Only in your dreams.
    We need to devote our energies not into silly numbers but into thinking through the hard question of how we get the right people into higher education. This is what a Smart Education system does & this is what the Smart Economy needs.

  4. colummccaffery Says:

    I argued before on this blog and on my own( that the kind of economic society to which we aspire requires education as opposed to training.

    However, Ferdinand’s piece above suggests something very depressing: an abandonment of the aspiration that anyone who meets the entry requirements can study for a degree.

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