A graduate world
Recently I took a taxi to get to the airport; it doesn’t matter right now where this was. As is often the case, I got into a conversation with the driver. Having discovered what my job is, he told me that he was a graduate of two different universities: he had a BA in a humanities subject, and an MSc in a branch of social science. Did he need these degrees to drive his taxi? No, not really. So was the taxi business not his first choice? Well actually, it was, and he was sticking with it. And he was thinking about another degree.
Of course my driver’s thirst for knowledge was wholly admirable, and from the conversation I was able to conclude that he performed well at university and received significant intellectual stimulation from his studies. I could not for a moment argue that he shouldn’t have gone to university. But still, I couldn’t help wondering about it; perhaps this was someone who should be making use of MOOCs (to pick up a discussion we have had on this blog recently).
To be honest, this is a topic I struggle with, in part because there really isn’t a general understanding of how many should avail of higher education. It is easy and right to argue that the old system in which universities just educated a social elite was fundamentally wrong. It is also easy, indeed necessary, to emphasise that higher education must be available to talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds with the same ease of access as enjoyed by those who were born relatively privileged. But once we have agreed that, how far do we take this? What percentage of our population do we expect to be graduates?
In most developed countries, the percentage has been moving steadily upwards. According to OECD statistics (which however only take us as far as 2006), the proportion of the population between the ages of 25 and 64 with tertiary degrees in most countries is now well over 25 per cent. In some countries it is significantly higher: in Canada it is 47 per cent, and in the United States and Japan it is around 40 per cent. In Ireland and the UK it is around 30 per cent. In most of these countries the percentage had grown by somewhere between 5 and 10 points over the previous decade.
If you look at the proportion of those at the typical graduation age who have a degree, the numbers are also interesting. The largest percentage is in Iceland, at an amazing 63 per cent. Poland and Finland manage nearly 50 per cent. Ireland has an impressive 45 per cent, significantly beating the United Kingdom at just under 40 per cent. Outside of the OECD, the proportion in China is at around 20 per cent, but in 30 years this has shot up from a mere 1.8 per cent.
So where should all this be going? What are we trying to do with higher education? If it is mainly about careers and employment, what impact might very high participation levels be having on professions that involve significant skills not taught in universities? What future do we want to have, or not have, for apprenticeships? If higher education is not about vocational preparation, should we then logically want to have everyone go to university? No country has ever really addressed these issues. Some (for example, Ireland) set more and more ambitious targets for higher education participation, but without any real debate on the implications. If universities are, quite properly, not intended to accommodate social elites, should they also not be host to intellectual or knowledge-based elites?
Some have argued that high levels of university participation compromise standards and increase drop-out rates. I think we should treat such arguments with care, in case they mask social elitism. But perhaps the time has come for a much more explicit debate about higher education, what it is for and who should be encouraged to participate.