Is access the enemy of quality?
As higher education massification continues across much of the world, and as assumptions about the appropriate proportion of the population that should have a university degree change further, questions are also being asked about whether in such circumstances the traditional higher education quality can be maintained. Mostly these questions are prompted by two concerns: (i) that as higher education expands, the funding does not, and therefore the resources available for teaching each student decline; and (ii) that as more students are admitted, many will have inferior final school examination results and will drag down the general standard, with higher attrition rates and lower quality performance.
There are legitimate questions to be asked about the limits to massification: there may well be a point beyond which the growth in higher education participation is counter-productive. But on the other hand we cannot return to an era in which higher education was for the social (as distinct from the intellectual) elite, or in which the opportunity to develop their intellectual potential was denied to those from more modest backgrounds. Therefore, because access for the disadvantaged entails the need to provide greater support and closer individual attention, both the state and the universities need to put in place a proper framework in which students are prepared for higher education from an early age.
If access programmes are well run, the evidence is that access students neither damage quality nor are prone to higher attrition rates. This was in particular our experience in Dublin City University.
Access requires resources, but much more importantly, access requires a different approach to schooling young people with intellectual potential. It requires a national plan that goes beyond setting access targets, and beyond asking universities to address access for 17 or 18-year-olds who are unprepared for this development. In most developed countries we are still a long way away from doing this right.