Posted tagged ‘higher education participation’

The right participation?

August 22, 2016

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.


Too much higher education?

March 24, 2015

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.

The limits of higher education?

October 29, 2013

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.

The elitism challenge

September 9, 2013

It is probably true to say that my generation was the last to experience higher education as something clearly elitist. I was in a cohort that probably contained not much more than 5 per cent of my age group. All of us were destined for relative prosperity and good fortune.

But soon after we had passed through the system and into our lucrative careers, society’s assumptions changed. What followed was what is sometimes described as the ‘massification‘ of higher education, with an increasing proportion of the population going to universities and colleges. In some countries, including Ireland, this proportion has exceeded 50 per cent. So what was once social elitism, with students typically coming from families with a tradition of higher education as well as other social advantages, now became intellectual elitism, in which an ever larger proportion of people were invited to participate in the experience of high value learning and scholarship.

But massification has created various problems. Some people have questioned the value of higher education as something that most people could expect to experience; partly because the high participation rates were said to be putting traditional professions and skills at risk where these did not require a university degree, and partly because the tsunami of degree courses developed in recent decades contained some or more not considered to be intellectually rigorous. The degree course offered in the 1990s by Thames Valley University in kite flying was often presented as an illustration of this decline in academic value.

The response to massification has not necessarily always been to argue there should be fewer university students. There has also been a tendency to suggest that the concentration of resources on a small number of elite universities would allow these to preserve traditional high value academic programmes; other less well resourced universities would then run courses for large numbers of those not quite gifted enough to enter the elite. In this way massification could remain, but re-ordered into streams for the very good and for the less good or maybe less fortunate. The latter is an important qualification, because once you have an elite set of institutions the capacity of the wealthy to buy up educational resources from an early age would almost inevitably create as much a social claim on this elite as an intellectual one.

This is not the way to go. It is wrong because it is elitist in the wrong (bad) sense; because it would quickly compromise upward social mobility; because traditional higher education is not necessarily more valuable to society than more innovative versions; because it would almost certainly produce an education system much less rooted in the communities it is supposed to serve. It may well be that higher education can become saturated, admitting more students than is good for society; an analysis of this would not be misplaced. But if there are to be adjustments, these should not compromise the understanding that all members of society, where they have the intellectual capacity, should have an equal claim on university membership, or that courses and research programmes should be supported and funded on the basis of excellence rather than on the traditions and political pull of their host institutions. Any form of concentration of resources on elite institutions undermines all of these objectives and leaves society less well off.

A graduate world

March 26, 2013

Recently I took a taxi to get to the airport; it doesn’t matter right now where this was. As is often the case, I got into a conversation with the driver. Having discovered what my job is, he told me that he was a graduate of two different universities: he had a BA in a humanities subject, and an MSc in a branch of social science. Did he need these degrees to drive his taxi? No, not really. So was the taxi business not his first choice? Well actually, it was, and he was sticking with it. And he was thinking about another degree.

Of course my driver’s thirst for knowledge was wholly admirable, and from the conversation I was able to conclude that he performed well at university and received significant intellectual stimulation from his studies. I could not for a moment argue that he shouldn’t have gone to university. But still, I couldn’t help wondering about it; perhaps this was someone who should be making use of MOOCs (to pick up a discussion we have had on this blog recently).

To be honest, this is a topic I struggle with, in part because there really isn’t a general understanding of how many should avail of higher education. It is easy and right to argue that the old system in which universities just educated a social elite was fundamentally wrong. It is also easy, indeed necessary, to emphasise that higher education must be available to talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds with the same ease of access as enjoyed by those who were born relatively privileged. But once we have agreed that, how far do we take this? What percentage of our population do we expect to be graduates?

In most developed countries, the percentage has been moving steadily upwards. According to OECD statistics (which however only take us as far as 2006), the proportion of the population between the ages of 25 and 64 with tertiary degrees in most countries is now well over 25 per cent. In some countries it is significantly higher: in Canada it is 47 per cent, and in the United States and Japan it is around 40 per cent. In Ireland and the UK it is around 30 per cent. In most of these countries the percentage had grown by somewhere between 5 and 10 points over the previous decade.

If you look at the proportion of those at the typical graduation age who have a degree, the numbers are also interesting. The largest percentage is in Iceland, at an amazing 63 per cent. Poland and Finland manage nearly 50 per cent. Ireland has an impressive 45 per cent, significantly beating the United Kingdom at just under 40 per cent. Outside of the OECD, the proportion in China is at around 20 per cent, but in 30 years this has shot up from a mere 1.8 per cent.

So where should all this be going? What are we trying to do with higher education? If it is mainly about careers and employment, what impact might very high participation levels be having on professions that involve significant skills not taught in universities? What future do we want to have, or not have, for apprenticeships? If higher education is not about vocational preparation, should we then logically want to have everyone go to university? No country has ever really addressed these issues. Some (for example, Ireland) set more and more ambitious targets for higher education participation, but without any real debate on the implications. If universities are, quite properly, not intended to accommodate social elites, should they also not be host to intellectual or knowledge-based elites?

Some have argued that high levels of university participation compromise standards and increase drop-out rates. I think we should treat such arguments with care, in case they mask social elitism. But perhaps the time has come for a much more explicit debate about higher education, what it is for and who should be encouraged to participate.

Is access the enemy of quality?

August 8, 2011

As higher education massification continues across much of the world, and as assumptions about the appropriate proportion of the population that should have a university degree change further, questions are also being asked about whether in such circumstances the traditional higher education quality can be maintained. Mostly these questions are prompted by two concerns: (i) that as higher education expands, the funding does not, and therefore the resources available for teaching each student decline; and (ii) that as more students are admitted, many will have inferior final school examination results and will drag down the general standard, with higher attrition rates and lower quality performance.

Concerns of this kind were recently discussed on the website World University News by a senior professor teaching in Korea and the chair of the European Students Union.

There are legitimate questions to be asked about the limits to massification: there may well be a point beyond which the growth in higher education participation is counter-productive. But on the other hand we cannot return to an era in which higher education was for the social (as distinct from the intellectual) elite, or in which the opportunity to develop their intellectual potential was denied to those from more modest backgrounds. Therefore, because access for the disadvantaged entails the need to provide greater support and closer individual attention, both the state and the universities need to put in place a proper framework in which students are prepared for higher education from an early age.

If access programmes are well run, the evidence is that access students neither damage quality nor are prone to higher attrition rates. This was in particular our experience in Dublin City University.

Access requires resources, but much more importantly, access requires a different approach to schooling young people with intellectual potential. It requires a national plan that goes beyond setting access targets, and beyond asking universities to address access for 17 or 18-year-olds who are unprepared for this development. In most developed countries we are still a long way away from doing this right.

Employing the graduates

August 16, 2010

According to information released recently by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), 10 per cent of those who graduated from Irish higher education institutions with an honours degree in 2008 were unemployed six months later. The figure for those graduating with a postgraduate degree in 2008 (including PhDs) was even higher, at 12 per cent. Both figures showed a very considerable worsening of graduate unemployment: a year earlier the percentages had been 3 and 5, respectively.

The HEA document described this as being one of the ‘full effects of the recession’, and this may well explain the increase. However, this trend will need to be watched over the next year or so; data relating to 2009 graduates should by now be available for comparison purposes. If the trend continues, it provides us with an additional reason for looking again at higher education participation targets, and at the capacity of the labour market to absorb the planned increases. There must necessarily always be some graduate unemployment, but rates of 10 per cent should raise some questions. As I have noted before, it may make more sense to increase higher education participation in a targeted way amongst socio-economically disadvantaged groups than to raise the overall participation rate.

What is university education for?

June 15, 2010

Guest blog by Dr Wendy Richards
Employment Counsellor (Canada), formerly Lecturer in Industrial Relations, Keele University (UK)

A repeated theme on this blog has been the topic of widening participation in higher education, in particular financial and other consequences of this which do not appear to have been thought out. As ever, higher education – in Ireland, as in other countries – is expected to do more with less. The suggestion that perhaps participation in higher education has already gone far enough seems to be considered politically unacceptable.

Politicians, higher education funding councils and other interest groups accept widening participation as an important goal, even expressing it in terms both of economic imperative and fairness to marginalised groups; for example, HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Wales) lists it as a strategic imperative, for this stated reason:

‘Widening access and improving participation in higher education are a crucial part of our mission and form one of our strategic aims. Our aim is to promote and provide the opportunity of successful participation in higher education to everyone who can benefit from it. This is vital for social justice and economic competitiveness.’

At the risk of seeming politically incorrect, I think that we need a fundamental reassessment of what a university education – and college or other further education – is for before any further effort is spent on yet again increasing the numbers benefiting from higher education. What is gained from acquiring a university degree, or college diploma? In some cases, training for a specific career – engineering, accountancy, law, medicine, chemistry, social work, for example. In other cases, specialised higher education which may or may not qualify the individual to work in a particular field – sociology, philosophy, theology, literature, languages, biology and so on. There’s no doubt that higher education provides many key transferable skills, such as the ability to analyse, construct an argument, read and assimilate large amounts of literature and so on. These skills may be valuable to individuals and, yes, they may be valuable to employers. But their value will diminish as a consequence of over-supply.

Put it another way: thirty or so years ago, when participation in higher education was considerably lower, a university degree was valuable currency and led to decent employment, regardless of the subject-matter of that degree. In the last decade or so, as higher education participation has increased, so has the unit of currency required for those decent jobs. The goalposts have moved: the cost of entry is now often a Masters degree, not a Bachelor. In other words, one consequence of inviting so many more people to obtain an undergraduate degree – and implicitly telling them that they’ll end up with better jobs and a better standard of living – is that they may later feel misled. And, where financial cost is involved – be it ‘registration’ fees or, in other countries, tuition and other fees – new graduates have debt to pay off and a job that pays not much more than they might have been able to find with no degree, or with a two-year college diploma. Or with no job at all.

As a former academic, I believe strongly in the value of education; as an employment counsellor now with clients newly graduated from degree courses struggling to find meaningful work, I believe even more strongly in the need for policymakers to take a step back and think about what we should be trying to achieve through higher education, and how it benefits both consumers – would-be students – and the economy. After all, I’m sure no-one wants to see McDonald’s requiring BAs for burger-flipping jobs – even if there is probably already a fairly high proportion of McDonald’s employees who hold degrees!

An end to higher education expansion

June 8, 2010

It is, I believe, time to raise one uncomfortable issue affecting our system of higher education: is it still conceivable that as a country we can or should meet the current government target of widening participation in higher education to 72 per cent of each age cohort? Ireland already has one of the highest participation rates – now over 60 per cent – in the developed world. The arguments in favour of continuing this trend and reaching the target include the desirability of a highly trained and educated workforce, and the capacity that this would give the country to sustain a high value knowledge society and economy.

But it may also be right to query the target, for reasons that include the following. Higher education provided for such a large proportion of the population must inevitably become more training than education-focused. There is an overlap between the two, but they are not identical. Secondly, unless we actually provide higher education for the entire population, an ‘excluded’ cohort of 30 per cent or so will become a visibly disadvantaged group, which may have the perverse effect of increasing the marginalisation of the poorer sections of society; even now we are seeing that while participation is at around 100 per cent for the wealthy, it remains very low for the least prosperous in society. Ironically, a serious effort to increase participation by the disadvantaged may require a slow-down in the overall rate.

But finally, it is becoming clear that, at least for now, we cannot afford to educate so many students. The budgets of higher education institutions are currently being devastated by public funding cuts, and the result is that a larger group of students is experiencing an increasingly frayed education with real resourcing and quality issues.

Continuing the expansion of higher education has been an article of faith in Ireland. It may be time to revisit that objective.

Women in universities

April 7, 2010

In the UK a significant development has just been confirmed: more than half of women (51 per cent to be precise) between 17 and 30 are going or have gone to university. In Ireland that may not seem astounding, as the figure here is higher already. But what makes the British number interesting is that the proportion of men going to university stands at 40 per cent, so considerably lower than the percentage of women. Furthermore, while the proportion of men going to university has increased by 3 per cent over a decade, the increase for women over the same period is 10 per cent.

Of course none of this is reflected in the distribution of senior academic posts, a large majority of which are occupied by men. But the educational trend outlined above will have an impact eventually, both in academic employment and in senior posts all over the economy. I suspect many will not worry unduly about this, and will – justifiably – point out that this development balances centuries-long discrimination against women. Nevertheless, we may need to be somewhat concerned about the social impact of having a growing number of men who are, relatively speaking, educationally disadvantaged, not least because such men, arguably unlike women, drift easily into anti-social conduct and even crime.

Perhaps we also need to look more carefully at the impact more generally of having those without a higher education qualification as a minority, who may feel both disadvantaged and inferior. If higher education is, rightly, no longer seen as an entitlement only for the wealthy and privileged, then we need to have a clearer sense of what role in society we expect to be played by those who have not experienced it. These are all issues that, I fear, we are not so far really addressing with any kind of energy.