Posted tagged ‘massification’

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.

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.