The elitism challenge
It is probably true to say that my generation was the last to experience higher education as something clearly elitist. I was in a cohort that probably contained not much more than 5 per cent of my age group. All of us were destined for relative prosperity and good fortune.
But soon after we had passed through the system and into our lucrative careers, society’s assumptions changed. What followed was what is sometimes described as the ‘massification‘ of higher education, with an increasing proportion of the population going to universities and colleges. In some countries, including Ireland, this proportion has exceeded 50 per cent. So what was once social elitism, with students typically coming from families with a tradition of higher education as well as other social advantages, now became intellectual elitism, in which an ever larger proportion of people were invited to participate in the experience of high value learning and scholarship.
But massification has created various problems. Some people have questioned the value of higher education as something that most people could expect to experience; partly because the high participation rates were said to be putting traditional professions and skills at risk where these did not require a university degree, and partly because the tsunami of degree courses developed in recent decades contained some or more not considered to be intellectually rigorous. The degree course offered in the 1990s by Thames Valley University in kite flying was often presented as an illustration of this decline in academic value.
The response to massification has not necessarily always been to argue there should be fewer university students. There has also been a tendency to suggest that the concentration of resources on a small number of elite universities would allow these to preserve traditional high value academic programmes; other less well resourced universities would then run courses for large numbers of those not quite gifted enough to enter the elite. In this way massification could remain, but re-ordered into streams for the very good and for the less good or maybe less fortunate. The latter is an important qualification, because once you have an elite set of institutions the capacity of the wealthy to buy up educational resources from an early age would almost inevitably create as much a social claim on this elite as an intellectual one.
This is not the way to go. It is wrong because it is elitist in the wrong (bad) sense; because it would quickly compromise upward social mobility; because traditional higher education is not necessarily more valuable to society than more innovative versions; because it would almost certainly produce an education system much less rooted in the communities it is supposed to serve. It may well be that higher education can become saturated, admitting more students than is good for society; an analysis of this would not be misplaced. But if there are to be adjustments, these should not compromise the understanding that all members of society, where they have the intellectual capacity, should have an equal claim on university membership, or that courses and research programmes should be supported and funded on the basis of excellence rather than on the traditions and political pull of their host institutions. Any form of concentration of resources on elite institutions undermines all of these objectives and leaves society less well off.