Trouble with numbers

Mass higher education has brought social mobility to millions worldwide, but as access expands and academia is stretched to breaking point, standards are in steady decline, writes Philip Altbach

September 23, 2010

It might seem a contradiction that widening access would bring inequality to higher education, but trends show that is exactly what happens. Institutions that cater to mass access provide vastly different quality, facilities and focus than do elite institutions, and this gulf has widened as access has expanded worldwide. Furthermore, mass higher education has, for a majority of students, lowered quality and increased dropout rates.

However, even if these consequences have become inevitable and logical, they do not justify a move to reduce access but rather call for a more realistic understanding of the implications of "massification" and the steps needed to improve the problems created by dramatic increases in enrolments.

Mass higher education is now a worldwide phenomenon. More than 150 million students are enrolled in universities worldwide, an increase of 53 per cent in just a decade. Globally, 26 per cent of the relevant university age group now participates in higher education, up from 19 per cent in 2000. In many rich countries, more than half the eligible population is in higher education and in some countries, the figure is as high as 80 per cent. Even in much of the developing world, enrolments are increasing dramatically.

This rise in enrolment has been universally hailed as contributing to social mobility for individuals, the expansion of the knowledge economy of nations and an increase in skill levels worldwide. And in the first decade of the 21st century, it is quite likely that more students will study in academic institutions than in the previous 10 centuries combined.

Massification has moved largely from the developed countries, which have achieved high participation rates, to the developing and some middle-income nations. In fact, the most growth in the coming decades will take place in China and India. China enrols about 23 per cent of the traditional university-going age cohort, and India around 12 per cent. The region with the lowest enrolment rate, sub-Saharan Africa, which in 2007 was educating only 6 per cent of the age group, is expanding access, but still has a long way to go.

The consequences of access

Increased access brings a series of inevitable changes to higher education systems. The specific impact and conditions will vary by location, but all countries experience these factors to some extent. Nations with more financial resources, a strong commitment to post-secondary education and perhaps a slower growth curve may be less dramatically affected than others. But the impact is universal and of great relevance to policymakers and the higher education community.

Student populations not only expand but also become more diverse. Traditionally, universities educated only a small elite - often fewer than 5 per cent of the age group. These students came from top secondary schools and well-educated and affluent families. Widening access opens higher education to people from an array of social class and educational backgrounds, but one of the most dramatic results of greater access is the expansion of enrolments by women, who now comprise the majority of students in many countries.

Serving students from diverse backgrounds and generally without a high-quality secondary education is a challenge. It is often more expensive than educating a small elite because tutoring, counselling and other services are needed (although these are seldom available). At one time, universities assumed that almost all of their student populations had obtained a high-quality secondary education and were prepared for academic study. Expanded access has delivered many students who have neither the academic background nor the ability once considered the norm.

Wider access obviously requires more facilities. Existing universities and other post-secondary institutions have expanded and new institutions have been built, but supply can seldom keep up with demand. Deterioration in students' study conditions, including overcrowding and inadequate libraries and other study facilities, is common.

The academic profession has been stretched to breaking point. Nearly half of those teaching in higher education worldwide possess only a bachelor's degree. Class sizes have increased and students receive little personal attention from professors. Academic salaries have deteriorated and many academics must hold more than one job to survive. It is likely that wider access has produced, on average, a poorer learning environment for students, in part because the academic profession has not kept pace with expansion.

Growing demand for access has contributed to the rise of private higher education in many countries. Governments have been unable to fund public post-secondary institutions to meet expanding enrolments and the private sector has taken up the slack.

In much of Latin America, where public universities dominated the sector two decades ago, private institutions now educate half or more of the students. Most of the new private institutions, which are unselective and often poor-quality schools providing a degree and little else, are "demand-absorbing". Many operate on a for-profit basis. First-generation students have little choice but to attend these new private schools, which invariably charge relatively high tuition fees, because they cannot gain access to the public sector.

Massification has created the demand for quality assurance and accreditation, but few countries have been able to set up and enforce effective regimes to ensure appropriate quality standards. This environment means that, at least for the present, there is little transparency or knowledge about the effectiveness of much higher education provision, particularly at institutions that serve a mass clientele.

Access growth has meant a significant increase in non-completion rates in higher education. Even in the US, the country that developed the first mass higher-education system and allocated significant resources to higher education, the proportion of students who take more than the standard four years to complete an undergraduate degree or who do not complete any degree has increased significantly. Many countries are unable to cope with increased demand and a significant proportion of entering students routinely "flunk out".

Widened access has increased the cost of higher education - to society, individuals and families. In much of the world, the increased cost has fallen on those who can least afford it - first-generation students and those from lower-income families. Governments cannot afford to fund wider access and have raised the cost of study or turned over expansion to the private sector.

The inevitability of inequality

The reality of greater access to higher education in an era of fiscal constraint, combined with ever-increasing costs, is that inequality within higher education systems is here to stay. Most countries have or are creating differentiated systems of higher education that will include different kinds of institutions serving specific needs. This process is inevitable and largely positive. However, the research universities at the top of any system tend to serve an elite clientele and have high status, while institutions lower in the hierarchy cater to students who cannot compete for the limited seats at the top. Major and growing differences exist in funding, quality and facilities within systems. Given financial and staffing constraints, institutional inequalities will continue. Students will come from more diverse backgrounds and, in many ways, will be more difficult to serve effectively.

All of these issues constitute a deep contradiction for 21st-century higher education. As access expands, inequalities within the higher education system also grow. Conditions of study for many students deteriorate. More of them fail to obtain degrees. The economic benefits assumed to accrue to persons with a post-secondary qualification will probably decline for many as a glut of over-qualified job-seekers enters the workplace.

Wider access remains an important - and inevitable - goal of higher education throughout the world, but it creates many challenges.

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