The limits of higher education?

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.

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6 Comments on “The limits of higher education?”


  1. So what percentage of our national income should we spend on higher education? What would that decision be based on? Would it be dependent on the unit cost?

  2. Andy Boal Says:

    It’s a matter of convenience for the Government. By extending State Pension Age (because it’s cheaper to pay Jobseeker’s Allowance to a young person than State Pension and occupational pensions to retired people), they are forcing people to work longer.

    As a direct result, there are fewer jobs for young people to take, so the latest is that they want them to stay in education until they’re 25 if they aren’t in a job. More money saving measures, regardless of the educational wisdom.

  3. foleyg Says:

    We need to recognise that massification of third level education does not have to mean massification of four-year honours degree programs. There is a reasonable argument to be made that almost everyone would benefit from third level education of some kind. But it is clear to me that the percentage of young people who are able for, or who really benefit from, four years in college is probably quite small. Unfortunately third level education is locked in a race towards homogeneity. Rather than creating an education ladder we should be creating an education network.


  4. As you say, it’s a complex issue. However, what’s really needed is a solid base of education – the assumption that only 3rd level works is wrong. What’s actually missing in Ireland are enough training/apprentice places where people correctly learn the other skills that are needed. Unfortunately, that area has lost investment faster than the University sector, with low-paid unskilled workers taking up the slack: it’s cheaper for a tradesman to take on someone at a low wage than to train an apprentice. This also applies to the IT industry: does one need a 4-year computing degree to create & maintain a first-class web site?

    Maybe more investment into impactful training makes more sense.

  5. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    So many questions, so many debates- as always a very interesting blog.
    My feeling is that is probably impossible to empirically verify the value for money conjecture, and it’s mainly political forces rather than economic ones which determine how much the citizens of their statelet end up paying. Lucky Scots, lucky Germans, poor English, poor Japanese.
    But learning is such fun. It would be sad if the economic case alone deterred people from being given the opportunity to broaden the mind.
    As far as economics is concerned, I’m worried that the English H/E deferred fee repayment system will lure people into taking the wrong courses which are generally set at uncompetitive prices. If, by contrast, English universities charged fees up-front, courses which do not provide graduates with a high return on investment would be forced to lower their fees. Instead, we have a situation in which everything from medicine to fine arts cost the same amount; and students are generally unaware of whether their choice will actually pay off until they are saddled with a lifetime of debt.


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