Should anyone be able to go to university?

In a recent speech to business and university leaders, Vicki Thomson, executive director of the Australian Group of Eight (Go8) universities, argued against university enrolment on demand, saying that it had harmed the economy, diminished the value of higher education, and created the false view that anyone without a degree is a “failure”. Although there are elements of these arguments with some validity, I strongly disagree with the conclusion that has been drawn.

Tertiary education has clear economic benefits to society as a whole, not just to the individual student. Over the longer term, these economic benefits far outweigh the costs. Tertiary education also has enormous non-economic benefits for society. Subsidising education and ensuring equity of access is worthwhile. This argues in favour of a demand model.

For any given course, it seems reasonable to set entry criteria to ensure that students do not incur a large debt for a course they are unlikely to pass. However, the likelihood of successfully completing a degree course is not always easy to predict, whether this is based on previous academic results or other methods of assessment. The likelihood of obtaining employment related to the field of study is also difficult to predict, given that whole industries may rise and fall in the timeframe of a tertiary course. What is needed is a process of informed consent prior to incurring an educational debt. The ‘informed’ part is currently lacking. This still argues in favour of a demand model, but a much better informed one.

The nature of tertiary institutions and the qualifications they confer is a lot less clear cut than in the past. The general principle used to be that TAFE and similar institutions offered vocational courses, while universities offered courses in which the development of critical thinking and/or research skills independent of the particular career stream was an essential component. The conferring of a degree qualification implied the acquisition of these additional skills.

More recently the degree as a qualification has become a symbol of “professionalism” dissociated from the requirement to possess these additional skills, leading to courses which are more vocational in nature increasingly being provided by universities and leading to the conferring of a degree. There would be less demand for university places if vocational training at institutions other than universities, and qualifications other than degrees, were appropriately valued – not just by “society”, but also by industry advocates such as unions, employers and employees. This would still only help in economic terms if vocational courses could be offered more cheaply elsewhere than universities (and I would argue that they can, because of the smaller and cheaper infrastructure required when academic or experimental research is not an integral role of the institution).

Employers requiring qualifications that are not genuinely matched to the job requirements is a valid criticism, but one which is also not as clear-cut as it might seem. Drawing on the arguments made above, one can see that an employer might require a degree qualification for one of several reasons: the vocational content of the degree course is a specific match for the job; the degree is simply a status marker and completely irrelevant to the job; or critical thinking skills are necessary or useful for the job, in which case the mere possession of a degree is not sufficient. In this last case, an applicant with a degree in a field which is not directly related to the job but which has resulted in the development of superior critical thinking skills may be a better match than than an applicant with a purely vocational degree in the relevant field.

Allowing universities to offer places according to demand is not the problem. The problem is much more complex and encompasses the issues of not having a clear concept of the role of universities, the meaning of a degree qualification and how the costs and benefits of obtaining a university degree will be distributed within society; and the paucity of accurate information on which individuals can base their decisions about tertiary education.