University Should Be Just for the Elite!

The Drinking Song from the musical, “The Student Prince” reminds us that it is not a recent idea that attending university is a pleasant coming-of-age experience for those whose families could afford it.  However the state does not invest so much in higher education just to give its citizens the opportunity to study a topic they enjoy for a few years and have fun with friends.  Most young people go to college so that they can build a career and have happy, financially secure lives, many believing that this is what prospective employers expect of them.  A reasonable motive of governments in subsidising higher education is the creation of happy productive citizens that are capable of sustainably generating the resources required to take care of their own needs and with enough surplus to allow them to enjoy some extra pleasures and to help others who may be less fortunate.

Does higher education help them achieve this? Those of us who have been working with educational technologies in higher education are very aware of the widely held perception that we are underperforming.  Indeed we are working hard to rectify that, even if our innovations seem to be moving very slowly compared to the rate of innovation in the world outside.  We have accepted the criticism that our graduates are not work-ready and have made efforts to include work-placements and internships, and even tried to artificially recreate the real world within our walls with Project Based Learning.  We have accepted that the quality of teaching could be improved and invested in Teaching and Learning units and tried to coax teaching staff to change their practices.

But many of us believe that we are never going to be agile enough to respond to the latest demand from employers and many argue that this is not our role.  They claim that our role is to educate not train, helping young people to understand themselves and the world they live in, teaching them how to think critically and to communicate, and perhaps giving them some specific skills that are in demand by employers.  However, there is significant doubt about whether we even do that very well.

However, leaving that debate aside, it is clear that whatever we are achieving, it is a very expensive process.  Those of us working with learning technologies know that there is potential to reduce unit costs through scale and other pedagogical and technology-based techniques.  Those of us working with adults in the workforce know that their intrinsic motivation, and their awareness of relevance, allows them to pick up ideas much more efficiently and learn with much less resource inputs.

Separately, many, including those in higher education, agree that for employability reasons we need to move the emphasis away from higher education and towards vocational education.  This begs the question; should all post-secondary education not be vocational?  Is it not the responsibility of every individual to gain skills that help themselves and society to be financially independent and flourish?  Is it not the responsibility of the state to help people to do this?

There is much evidence that campus-based post-secondary education is not the most efficient way to do this.  Using learning technologies, it is not just possible to learn as you work, but it is cheaper and produces better learning outcomes.  Many argue that the campus experience is necessary for the personal development of young people.  Apart from there being little evidence that this is true, this argument may come across as offensive to the many who have never had the opportunity to attend college.  In any case, the college experience seems to be a very expensive way to achieve this nebulous objective, particularly when we have the opportunity to define precisely what we want to achieve and the tools to achieve it in other ways.  In fact one might conclude that work-based learning may not only be a far more efficient form of vocational training, but possibly more efficient for general education and personal development as well.

The argument that all post-secondary education should be vocational does not necessarily imply that less people should get a university education.  In the same way we can envisage a trainee engineer starting on the production line or a trainee doctor starting as a hospital porter, we can also imagine an English major starting out as a reporter for a local newspaper, or an archaeology major assisting on an excavation.  Those of us within the system who appreciate the merits of vocational and work-based higher education see these ideas as having great potential.  

But perhaps we are just trying to justify the continued existence of a system whose time has passed.  It is clear to those of us trying to innovate in higher education over the last 30 years that the system is not particularly interested in lowering the cost of higher education.  It might also be suggested that the collegiate decision making processes, perhaps a legacy of the middle-ages, are more responsive to the preferences of the academy than the needs of learners, and are just not agile enough to be useful in a rapidly changing world.

Commentators have more recently suggested that the value of a degree is more in signalling intelligence, endurance and conformity than in the acquisition of knowledge and skills or personal development.  These signals are important for employers, but if they can be provided in other less wasteful ways, perhaps other more efficient forms of education and accreditation might be just as useful to employers.  This is emerging in the continuing education sphere with low-cost online courses and associated digital credentials.  If such digital credentials prove to be reliable indicators of knowledge, skills and other attributes, and easily verified by employers, thus helping them to accurately identify suitable employees, they may gradually entice young people away from undergraduate courses.

So perhaps we need to face up to the shrinking relevance of what we do in higher education  and consider what its core purpose is.  We all agree that universities are important for the creation and dissemination of new knowledge.  And although the research process has to some extent been formulated so that many people can do it, we also tend to agree that the best results come from the most intelligent, imaginative and passionate people.  Such people, who are not that common, often find it difficult to find others with similar interests when they are young, and clearly benefit from spending time with others of a similar nature.  It seems clear that when such brilliant people are given the intellectual freedom and resources to follow their own interests they provide great benefit to society. These gifted people will not only discover new ideas and techniques but also communicate these to the rest of the world.  Some of them will be brilliant communicators and a joy to listen to, and their ideas and discoveries will be easily and cheaply passed on to the rest of us who can then usefully apply them in our lives and in our work.  Those who are not gifted communicators will find that there is no shortage of people willing to interpret their outputs and communicate them to us.

So perhaps higher education should go back to its roots and become once again a place for the elite to gather and push out the frontiers of knowledge.  But not the aristocratic or financial elite.  Perhaps we need the state to identify those young people who have the necessary passion and brilliance, and give them the space and opportunity to discover new knowledge and tools that will help to continuously make this world a better place.  Then the more mundane work of education and training can be left to a range of other organisations whose agility and efficiency will allow us to to widen access to more people at a cost that will minimise the debt incurred by individuals and the state and allow us to allocate those savings to other important objectives.

Written by Brian Mulligan who will be leading a debate on this topic at OEB20. Brian is Head of Online Learning Innovation at Institute of Technology Sligo in Ireland and writes occasionally on his blog “Well I wouldn’t start from here anyway!” at

Mario Lanza, “The Drinking Song” from “The Student Prince”

2 Responses

  1. David McCreery

    Brian, so what is your opinion, higher education is shrinking in relevance and should go back to elites. You seem to be sitting on the fence with the “perhaps”. I have no doubt that workplace training and education should be blended with less full time students in education.

    • Brian Mulligan

      Yes, as written I am sitting on the fence on this as I believe one should always be sceptical, even of one’s own opinions. However, I do believe that all education should be vocational, all should have some level of “higher” education (particularly on critical thinking) built in and all should be work-based, at scale and more efficiently delivered. Of course, I could be wrong.


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