The right participation?

It is that time of year again, when (at least in this part of the world) school examination results are out and universities make their final student selection decisions. It is also the time of year when questions are asked, again, about how many people should ideally participate in higher education.

Roughly a year ago a senior Australian academic, Leo Goedegebuure of the University of Melbourne, suggested:

While some may look at graduate employment rates and contend we have an oversupply of graduates, I fundamentally disagree. Not only is the middle- and long-term outlook for university graduates still pretty good, in a knowledge-based economy there is no limit on the level of educational attainment. The higher and the better educated a country, the more competitive it becomes.

Today a different perspective was offered in the Irish Times by Sean Byrne, lecturer in the Dublin Institute of Technology:

… Encouraging large numbers of young people to enter third-level courses without assessing their aptitude for the subjects they propose to study or their capacity for self-directed learning will inevitably lead to declining standards and thwarted aspirations.

The debate, if we can call it that, about the optimum participation rate in higher education is never really satisfactory because it doesn’t make explicit the very different considerations included in this question. The issues raised are pedagogical, economic and social; and this is complex because our assessment of pedagogy, for example, has significant social implications. When only a social elite went to university (which was generally the case until the 1980s or so) universities could offer a much less utilitarian curriculum. But when higher education is accessed by a majority of the population, it is more or less inevitable that it will focus much more on economic impact and need. And as we get closer and closer to a society in which almost everyone aspires to a university degree, most of these degrees will need to be closely linked to skills needed in the economy, at various levels.

Higher education participation has grown strongly in all developed countries by design (and rightly so). But what this means in pedagogical, economic and social terms has not become a matter of consensus. And so, every year around this time, someone will ask whether we are really doing the right thing in expanding higher education to such an extent; and will neither offer nor get a satisfactory answer.

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One Comment on “The right participation?”

  1. no name Says:

    “And as we get closer and closer to a society in which almost everyone aspires to a university degree, most of these degrees will need to be closely linked to skills needed in the economy, at various levels.”

    This appears to contain a non-sequitur: that increasing numbers aspire to greater knowledge and higher levels of formal, university based education does not entail a need for a close link to skills required by the economy. Skills needed in the economy appear to be orthogonal to the purpose of universities, and are arguably better served outside the university sector, in sectors which evidently do not attract their deserved esteem. Where immediately applicable skills are required (such as in plumbing, web-site development, medicine, and so on) apprenticeships and professional schools appear better suited than universities.

    With respect to the potential for universities to provide equalizing social strength, evidence shows that this is not the case: “The pay gap in the UK between men and women with higher level qualifications has not changed for 20 years, despite numerous government initiatives. Women with degrees still earn 20 per cent less per hour than men with degrees…” [1].

    The purpose of universities is to develop and communicate knowledge, even if that knowledge is not directly applicable in the wider economy, and even if the wider community fails to accept the hypotheses and knowledge offered from within universities (or is it the case that universities actually do teach that women merit less pay than men in each discipline?).

    [1] Gemma Tetlow (2016) “Equality drives fail to budge wage gap for higher educated women” Financial Times, August 23, 2016 ( — last verified August 23, 2016).

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