Posted tagged ‘expansion of higher education’

Are we seeing the end of higher education expansion?

August 12, 2010

One of the constant themes of higher education in most countries over recent decades has been its continuing expansion. After World War 2 a degree was still the expectation or aspiration of only a very small proportion of the population in western societies, usually those coming from a privileged background. Then, as one of the later consequences of the welfare state, came the so-called ‘massification’ of the sector, with higher education opening up to people and groups who had previously¬†largely¬†been excluded. Over recent years many governments have suggested further targets for expansion – in Ireland it became government policy to target a participation rate of 72 per cent of any given age cohort.

But this expected further expansion is not now happening in some countries, on the face of it largely for funding reasons: governments simply cannot afford to pay for it. Ironically right now it would, if the money were there, be relatively easy to let the system expand, as an increasing number of young people, unsure about their career prospects in the aftermath of the recession, are anxious to go to university. So governments face the dilemma of either pushing ahead with a further upskilling of the labour force, or facing the funding reality and cutting back. Only few will attempt the feat the Irish government has in mind, of increasing participation aggressively while paying less to the universities for providing the education.

The issue has just been highlighted in Britain, with both Universities UK and individual institutions indicating that this year they will not be offering the same number of places through ‘clearing‘ (the system used to match vacancies with aspiring students after universities have allocated places to the initial successful applicants), or even any places at all.

In Ireland the universities are having to examine very carefully whether they really can increase their intake any further in the light of continuing funding (and staffing) reductions, and with the real fear that these reductions are already seriously compromising quality.

Outside of the specific funding considerations, it should be noted that we have not really addressed in any coherent way what level of participation in higher education is workable or desirable. It is clear beyond doubt that there is further scope for increasing substantially the intake from disadvantaged groups in society, but whether an overall increase is desirable or sustainable, and what impact this would have on the overall mix of qualifications and career patterns, has not really been properly discussed, and it needs to be. Right now, it seems to me to be highly unlikely that the expansion of higher education will, or can, continue.