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.

Concerns of this kind were recently discussed on the website World University News by a senior professor teaching in Korea and the chair of the European Students Union.

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.

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12 Comments on “Is access the enemy of quality?”

  1. Peter Lydon Says:

    Is there such a thing as ‘education inflation’?

  2. Sometimes I feel that the step we missed is in defining what we think “intellectual potential” means in terms of the way students will reshape the future university. So we want more students, and we want them to be better prepared, but perhaps we’ve underestimated their potential to change what we think we’re here to do. So then we really just want them to join us in doing the same old thing we’ve always done.

    I hope it’s not a fantastically obvious question to ask: how do you feel we should best define intellectual potential in this context? What kinds of actions or habits point to a young person with it? Maybe this could help us all start a slightly different conversation about what the future university could organise itself to do.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      could not agree more on this point about defining intellectual potential, or better, I’d say, *re-defining* it in the context of our digital age since, as a recent article in the new York Times correctly noted (

      even academically reticent students publish work prolifically, subject it to critique and improve it on the Internet. This goes for everything from political commentary to still photography to satirical videos — all the stuff that parents and teachers habitually read as “distraction.”

      • I feel exactly the same. I have several students who still don’t distinguish themselves by conventional measures of intellectual potential, but they’re bloggers and creative remixers and they’re active and effective across social media in making evidence-based arguments. Would I have picked them up in high school as likely to achieve? Not on the basis of their frankly ordinary academic results—even though these are so often the distinguished record of an independent thinker who was looking out of the window when the teaching-to-the-test was going on.

        So my continued thought is that we want to widen the pipe through which students come in to our system, for reasons of pretty awful business self-interest, but then we want to squeeze them out again in through the same narrow tube we’ve always used.

        When we use the word “quality” to talk about this, what — or who — are we protecting, I wonder?

        • anna notaro Says:

          yes…to follow your thoughts, the question of quality is connected to universities’ ideological conservatism and self-preservation interests, (which often expresse themselves in some form of luddism) not to speak of the age old question of what constitutes the *canon* in the 21st century…such questions have often been raised on this forum and elsewhere, for that matter..

      • Mary Says:

        That’s fascinating, Anna – thanks for the link!

  3. Perry Share Says:

    Is ‘access the enemy of quality’ in second level education? Is this a question that is even asked now? If not, why is it assumed that all people should have access to second level? How does the system address the reality of (potential) universal participation? What can the third level system learn from this?

    What are the arguments that could be used to decide that for certain people in our society, publicly-provided education should cease at a certain point? If we were to move to universal provision of life-long learning for all, what would be the implications of this?

    Easier to ask these questions than to answer them! The article in the NY Times was interesting – so was the discussion that followed it.

    • Vincent Says:

      Isn’t there a difference between access and numbers. None disputes that the system at Oxfords colleges is better but simply because of numbers.

    • anna notaro Says:

      The questions you ask could find a somewhat radical answer in this presentation by the learning futurist Maria Andersen who, among other things, argues for learning to be taken out of education, at least as we know it today…

  4. Al Says:

    Bullshtting is the enemy of quality!
    But we don’t have to worry about that……
    Next topic!

    • Al Says:

      Typing it on a smartphone and reading it on a computer ….
      The ‘we’ there is the geographic we, not the ‘us’ we or even the ‘I’ we, well maybe the ‘I’ we,,, but I do punch above my weight!!

  5. kevin denny Says:

    I think students from disadvantaged backgrounds who make it to university may be more likely to stick with it because they have higher levels of commitment- you have to if you are coming from such a background.
    It is possible that if the system expands that one moves not just down “the points ladder” but down the “commitment ladder” in which case retention amongst that population would fall. I wouldn’t worry about that too much: after all why should working class kids be required to display greater tenacity than middle class ones?
    On a different note, our concept of disadvantaged tends to be a bit arbitrary, or perhaps is socially constructed. We focus on socio-economic disadvantage but who is to say that is the only aspect? We are going to have a significant population of young adults in Ireland who are either immigrants or the children of immigrants who may well also have low access to 3rd level and we won’t know about this because it simply won’t be recorded anywhere.

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