How Can We Send The World To College?

Martin Trow characterized higher education systems as being on a march from elite systems of higher education, educating just a few, towards mass and universal systems, educating the many. Massification is a phenomenon that has impacted higher education worldwide particularly since the 1960s. Today, these trends continue. By 2025, the total demand for a college and university education is expected to reach nearly 235 million, approximately double what it was in 2007. Expanding access for higher education, although a laudable goal, does not come without consequences.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes equitable access to higher education, by all those qualified, as a human right. The massification of the world’s higher education systems has the potential to make this a near universal reality. Merely providing access, however, is not the same as providing equitable access. Recent trends towards globalization and the commoditization of higher education are challenging these notions of equitable access. These debates reflect the lack of consensus over education as a private or public good. How this question is answered will have profound impacts on how these mass systems develop.

tertiarygrowth1970-2007Motivations to reach a level of mass higher education come from both within a society, individually and collectively, and as a result of external pressures in an increasingly competitive global landscape. On the individual societal level, a college degree is increasingly necessary for one to become socially mobile and to increase one’s standard of living. A college degree thus confers private financial benefits on the individual receiving the degree. The degree, however, also confers a public good, as it uplifts an entire society. It increases public health and life expectancies, provides knowledgeable leaders for commerce and governance, and elevates the societal standards of living as a whole. In an increasingly globalized economy, this also makes nations more competitive across the international landscape. As the world economy moves from an industrial-based to a knowledge-based economy, the need for enhanced access to higher level learning become critical.

Creating, growing and maintaining a national system of higher education is incredibly resource intensive. As nations seek to increase enrolments in higher education, they are confronted with a series of choices that require them to clarify their values. A central value tension in the trend towards massification is whether education is a private good or a public one. As alluded to in the previous paragraph, as a private good, higher education is seen as benefiting the individual. As a result of this viewpoint, the funding for education is seen as an individual burden as opposed to one that should be bankrolled by the public. As a public good, higher education is a force that uplifts the entire society. The public is then invested in ensuring high levels of access through subsidized or no cost intuitions of higher education. Whether a society believes higher education is a public or private good can have profound implications on how it develops its higher education system.

oecd-college1Who should fund higher education systems, and who should pay (or not pay) for students to attend them thus becomes an increasingly complex question with which nations must grapple. Those that view education as a public good are more likely to provide university-level education for free (or for very low tuition) and provide robust public higher education systems. Those that view it as a private good are more likely to experience higher tuition and rely more heavily on private systems of higher education.

In addition to the internal debate within a nation, trends towards internationalization and globalization are perverting this dialogue. As a result of actions and proposals put forward by the World Bank and the World Trade organization, higher education is increasingly becoming commoditized. Education is thus becoming a product that can be traded and sold across national borders. As a result of this trend, national systems of higher education are no longer insular affairs. Higher education is increasingly being pushed towards a model of a private good, one that is not confined within national borders and one that does not have as clear-cut immediate benefits for the local public.

When developing a mass system, nations are confronted with how to expand this access. In order to accommodate the diverse needs, talents and abilities of a population, mass systems must diversify. This diversification includes creating multiple points of entry into the higher education system. The United States is an excellent example of a diversified system. It possesses teaching-focused two-year and four-year regional universities and world-class national research universities. Each institution has varying admissions standards from open enrollment to the highly selective. Germany, in contrast, has numerous research universities that are all considered equal. As the march towards massification continues, this one-size-fits-all approach becomes increasing untenable. As more students attend college, and the diversity of the students increases, and the traditional elite university can no longer act as a preserve. It must change to accommodate new types of students.

oecd4This diversification also extends to a diversification of the fields of study and the types of degrees offered. No longer able to focus on very specific or arcane subjects, universities are increasingly called upon to provide education in a number of applied fields. They must provide opportunities for research, but acknowledge the reality that not all students with a university degree will pursue a research-intensive career. The professoriate must also diversify, allowing for a broad range of teaching-focused and research-focused faculty to exist within the same system.

Along the path towards massification, many nations are confronted with the reality that they are unable to publicly fund the number of institutions required to absorb increased student enrolments. In addition to the above-mentioned diversification, higher education systems reaching towards massification must balance the creation of public and private institutions. As demand for higher education outstrips the ability of the state to provide it, private institutions provide the means of expanding access without necessitating that the public fund the capital-intensive project of starting a university. Although private institutions are beneficial in this regard, states have various levels of control over the quality and types of services and degrees these institutions provide. Different nations have wildly different blends of these types of institutions within their borders and the status of each of these systems can also vary.

The massification of higher education has profound effects on higher education systems and the societies that support them. Higher education, as a human right, has the potential to uplift individuals and entire societies. How this is achieved, however, can have a profound impact on the public and private benefits of higher education. As the world’s systems reach towards mass education, a careful balance must be achieved between the fiscal realities and pitfalls the creation of such a system entails and the ideal of providing an education that uplifts the world’s peoples as a whole.

Image courtesy of Judy van der Velden, Chart from OECD posted on GlobalHigherEd, Chart from OECD posed on Curmudgucation, Chart from OECD posted on GlobalHigherEd

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