Some of the key changes in higher education over recent times have been driven by what is sometimes termed ‘massification’ – i.e. the move from a system that served an elite only to one that every member of society might aspire to experience. As I have mentioned before, when I was a student I was one of around 5 per cent of my age cohort who could reasonably expect to go to university. In the years that followed the number increased rapidly, to a point where in many countries it is now common to see more than half of each cohort participate in higher education. The consensus that emerged suggested that most young people, and a good many older ones, should aim to go to university, and that in doing so they would create valuable human capital, enhancing their own income prospects significantly and providing skills and leadership for the wider society.
But now voices are beginning to emerge that question this consensus. In those countries in which relatively high tuition fees are largely funded by student debt, and where that debt has reached dramatic proportions as is the case in the United States, some are now asking whether this is producing ‘negative educational equity’, in which the salary advantages enjoyed by a graduate no longer exceed their accumulated student debts. Others are asking whether the surge in university graduates has asset stripped professions that society needs and that pay well but which, because they are not degree-based, no longer attract sufficient new entrants. Others again ask whether massification has anchored middle income groups within the graduate elite but has more effectively marooned the disadvantaged outside this large golden circle, because the cost of including the middle leaves insufficient resources to help the poor. In the meantime the growth in numbers has also meant a growth in the number of degree-based professions and, by that token, in degree courses that are heavily vocational
There probably isn’t a simple answer to all this. What seems clear to me is that massification cannot and should not be reversed; the days of small educational elites should be over. But there is within that framework a case for more debate on how far higher education should go, how it should be funded to make it genuinely excellent rather than just competent, and how professions whose formation does not properly need a university setting can be made sustainable and attractive. There also has to be a robust framework to ensure that the dividing line between higher education participation and other forms of adult formation is not a socio-economic one.
It may be worth saying that too often the debates about higher education are producer-oriented: focusing on the terms and experiences of academics rather than on the aspirations and experiences of students, or indeed of those who never become university students. To this extent the higher education debate needs to be re-balanced, and urgently so.