Too much higher education?

In many develop countries it has been government policy for some time to secure growing levels of participation in higher education. While I was President of Dublin City University the Irish government had a target participation rate of over 60 per cent. In the United Kingdom, under Tony Blair, the target was 50 per cent. Going for high targets is the ultimate destination in the process of ‘massification’, under which universities have ceased to be educators of the elite only and have opened their doors to those who would not in previous generations have considered this to be an accessible, appropriate or affordable route.

But not everyone thinks this is necessarily the right policy. Last year the founder of the Virgin group of companies, Richard Branson, said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper:

‘Ten years ago it felt as though teenagers in Britain were being told that university was the be all and end all, whereas in reality higher education wasn’t of use to many of those paying for it.’

Branson felt that, in particular, the rush for everyone to go to university was threatening to deprive the country and the economy of people with vital skills, particularly digital skills of importance to the IT sector. These skills he felt were generally not acquired in universities, but through other forms of vocational training. This trend, if not arrested, would endanger relevant industry investment.

In other accounts, it has been suggested (in this case in the Daily Telegraph) that too many young people were being cajoled into university; and some of them would find that higher education didn’t suit them, and they would drop out.

Of course there are other issues wrapped up in this discussion, including the question of how ‘vocational’ a university education should or should not be (and therefore whether universities can or should provide some of the skills the economy may be at risk of lacking). There is the question of the ‘social value’ of higher education, and whether those not experiencing it will be, or will mostly be, relatively disadvantaged. But it may well be time to ask the question of how far university education can, or should, go.

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One Comment on “Too much higher education?”

  1. no-name Says:

    “There is the question of the ‘social value’ of higher education, and whether those not experiencing it will be, or will mostly be, relatively disadvantaged.”

    People on these islands need to be somehow made to appreciate the difference between competent execution of a job by an employee in a restaurant, on a building site, during house repairs, in a dentist’s office, and so on, and the mediocre-to-poor execution that is rife and which coincides with societal expectations here. People do not seem to value vocational education on these islands, perhaps because they so seldom see people who are good at their jobs. The same jobs, executed in Germany, will be performed to an extremely high level. There is corresponding respect in Germany for the vocational education that yields this high level of performance. Access to these jobs is via proper vocational education.

    It is the the general public on these islands who are relatively disadvantaged, and this is because of their general attitude towards the merits of vocational education and the merits of well executed jobs. The place would run rather more smoothly if these attitudes were reversed, if people regarded quality work with esteem and refused to accept sub-standard work.

    A university that has an undergraduate course in computer game development has arguably injected itself with an overdose of vocational targets. Undergraduate courses like that, and medicine, etc., should be left to proper vocational institutions to develop with excellence.

    Vocational institutions, correspondingly, should resist the urge to re-label themselves universities. It is difficult to change the view of the general public on this if vocational institutions themselves look down on vocations and convey this message by expressing the intent to acquire university status. A vocational institution that seeks university status is expressing that it seeks to diminish focus on vocations.


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