Instinct often insists that if something is good, more of it must be even better.
That is very much the modern mantra regarding higher education.
Arguably eastern Asia has embraced that belief most wholeheartedly. In a new article discussed in our news section, scholar Simon Marginson notes that enrolment in higher education exceeds 50 per cent in all countries in that region except China. Even in China, participation has risen to 30 per cent. In India – which we compare with China in this week’s cover feature – it has soared to nearly 24 per cent.
But experience suggests that it is a rare delight that knows no surfeit. Could there be such a thing as too much higher education?
One of the goals of increasing participation is to improve social mobility, but Marginson suggests this may not be as straightforward as it sounds, particularly in countries where some universities are world-class, while others skulk at the other end of the quality spectrum.
As participation rises, a university education becomes ever more key to social status, and competition for places increases. Since those from a rich background enjoy better schooling and connections, they maintain a stranglehold on admission to elite universities.
That is as true in the developed world as in the developing – in 2014-15, the proportions of state school students admitted by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were 55.7 per cent and 61.8 per cent respectively.
Another key motivation for expansion is to drive the knowledge economy. However, Marginson argues that since mass participation is “powered by the ambitions of families for social position and of students for self-realisation”, rather than demand from employers for more graduates, job prospects for individuals – especially for those from lower-ranked institutions – are not necessarily enhanced.
Nothing Marginson says suggests mass higher education is an inherently bad thing: after all, those from rich backgrounds have always been over-represented at the top of society. He also notes that “in a high participation-based society, the average individual should be more comfortable with knowledge and information…more effective and creative in communication and civil organisation, more capable in dealing with corporations and governments, and potentially more proactive, flexible and productive at work”.
But the fact that highly stratified systems may be less of a boon to first-generation students – especially when they pay high fees regardless of their institution’s place in the pecking order – may provide food for thought for India as it contemplates following China and numerous other developing nations in creating an elite stratum of universities.
The lessons are not clear-cut. We should not forget the role of university research – underlined by Nancy Rothwell in an opinion article this week – in driving industrial innovation. Some degree of research concentration may be inevitable if that engine is to work well: research that is not world-class is unlikely to confer much of a commercial advantage.
Nor should we underestimate the role that world-renowned universities and their trappings – such as Nobel prizes – play in national self-esteem and in attracting top scholars and students to their home countries’ systems.
But, at least in teaching, it may be that countries aiming to broaden opportunity and deepen expertise would be best served by spreading their budgets relatively evenly.