Higher education: is excellence the enemy of social mobility?
An interesting discusion has got under way in Scotland, promoted in part by The Herald newspaper. The issue is this: can excellence in higher education, of the kind that allows universities to compete with the best in the world, only be achieved at the expense of access for the disadvantaged? Or to put the question in another way, are quality and equality inherently incompatible?
What has prompted this discussion is the current recession and the impact it has had on higher education funding. As university budgets are cut and, as a result, not everything that institutions previously did is now affordable, what are the consequences? Taking the example of Glasgow University, the Herald reports that it is cutting a number of subject areas that may have particularly attracted the disadvantaged, while protecting and developing other areas that allow the university to compete with world leaders in research. The newspaper suggests that this throws up the following question for universities.
‘Is their primary function to be an agent of social justice and mobility, or do they need to concentrate on competing with Oxford and Cambridge and the US Ivy League universities in research and innovation?’
The newspaper also quotes the president of NUS Scotland, who puts the dilemma as follows.
‘I think we should be honest about our priorities. At the end of the day, the point of the university has changed. If you look at when only 5% of the population went, that was about knowledge, discovery, pushing boundaries, people talked about the crème de la crème. That’s not the purpose of universities now – it is about social mobility and people changing their lives.’
If there is a suggestion here that high quality or excellence is a luxury that may not be affordable and therefore should not be a priority in difficult economic times, then this has other consequences. If a country cannot demonstrate that its universities offer programmes of teaching and research that can compete with the best in the world, it will not be an attractive location for investment, and even those companies that are locally based may look to graduates from elsewhere for the more demanding jobs.
If the participants in the higher education debate in Scotland and Ireland start to suggest that a high volume university sector with lower quality ambitions is an appropriate compromise during difficult times, and that funding or resourcing can properly reflect this, they have not understood how the world is going. It is a dangerous policy direction to suggest, and the price may be paid not just by universities but by the country as a whole. Higher education access should always remain a top priority; but maintaining it at the expense of excellence is making a dangerous and false choice. There really are no cheap options for a modern university system.