Higher education policy: evidence from Ireland and Europe

ESRI logo, via the ESRI websitePicking up where I left off with yesterday’s post about the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) Higher Education Policy Conference, Professor David Raffe, Director of the Centre for Educational Sociology in the University of Edinburgh spoke on “Higher education policies across the UK since devolution”, and his paper put the higher education policy issues into context. In particular, he demonstrates not only the challenges being faced by higher education at present but also the diversity of available policy responses even in the UK. I’m going to summarize those aspects of his paper which are relevant to Irish circumstances and leave to one side his application of those elements to devolution in the UK [my occasional comments about the Irish position are in parentheses], and I will use his paper to put the contribution of Dr Selina McCoy in context.

At the moment, higher education policy in the UK [as in Ireland] is being driven by the massification of the third level sector and the desire to create a knowledge economy and society. Perhaps surprisingly, the Bologna process is not very high on the list of influences on the UK’s higher education policy. Mass higher education faces challenges in funding the sector, and in rethinking the university for academics, students, and wider society. Specific issues include student fees and student support, widening participation, supporting research, and the sector’s contribution to economic development, skills and employability. As to funding, in global terms, Europe is out of line in expecting the State to pay for higher education. The norm is that students pay either up front through fees, or in deferred payments after graduation. After the recent 40% cut in education funding and with the impending implementation of the Browne reforms, the UK is coming into in the international line [how soon before Ireland follows?]. Fees (even capped at £6,000 or £9,000) will approximate economic costs; and if the sector remains free at point of entry, these fees will be recovered after graduation. As to widening participation, universities are increasingly looking to fairer – contextualised – admissions criteria, and they are diversifying routes to third level. Finally, he considered the various values, ideologies and discourses that have an impact upon higher education policy. In particular, he noted that social democratic values in Scotland and Wales contrast with a heavily market-based approach in England [Ireland doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind between them]. But throughout the UK, the RAE/REF is progressively inculcating shared values in research; and [as in Ireland] a commitment to maintaining world class institutions able to feature prominently in international league tables is now a common feature of higher education strategy.

Raffe’s comments on widening access and participation provided context for Dr Selina McCoy of the ESRI to address the issue in her paper, entitled “Higher education research in Ireland: where are we now?” Her focus was on the evidence regarding access and progression in the context of higher education funding and the rapid expansion of the third level sector described in Muiris O’Connor’s paper (summarized in yesterday’s blogpost). Despite increased overall participation, certain groups remain under-represented. Research studies demonstrate continuing social inequality in Irish higher education, and although there have been some recent improvements, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are still less likely to enrol in higher education. Such students often become disengaged from the education system at second level, and perceive college simply as an unwelcome extension of school. She quoted from studies in which second level students from lower socio-economic backgrounds speak of their less-than-positive experiences of school, and their feelings of lack of respect or encouragement to participate in school and proceed to college. Research demonstrates that school engagement and achievement is central to progression to and through higher education; and students from professional backgrounds are up to three times more likely to complete third level education than students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. This shows the importance of awareness, guidance, advice, and support both at home and in school.

Further, financial constraints can be significant; and vocational apprenticeships or the labour market more generally have a strong pull away from higher education. Those from more disadvantaged backgrounds are often unaware of available financial supports, and these are increasingly inadequate: from the early 1970s to the mid 200s, state grants have remained fairly constant, which means that they have dropped fairly dramatically in real terms. Moreover, for those who do go to college, term-time/part-time employment has a negative impact not only on academic performance but also on broader social and cultural participation in college. Greater financial pressure means that such students are more likely to spend less on accommodation and more on travel (lower cost accommodation is typically further away from colleges) and that they have less cash to participate in college social activities.

Finally, she considered progression and achievement. Leaving Certificate performance is a strong predictor of academic preparedness and of progression and completion rates. Middle class students’ non-progression can often lead to transfer to another course or another higher education institution, whereas disadvantaged students are much more likely to drop out altogether. As with Muiris O’Connor, she emphasised that the sector needs to identify more effective models of teaching and learning, and to look further at the general student experience.

The last paper at the conference was presented by Research Professor Liv Anne Støren of the Norwegian Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education, Oslo; she spoke on “New trends in higher education in Norway – Are traditional male students ousted by female working class students and immigrant students?”. By way of contrast with the UK, she emphasised that Norwegian higher education policy has been strongly influenced by the Bologna process [much as Ireland has]. Her figures showed that participation and completion rates are increasing among female working class students and immigrant student. Indeed, more females than males enter higher education; the social background of females is more diverse than for males; and immigrant students are often very ambitious in their study choices This gives some comfort to us in Ireland as we seek to respond to the challenges illustrated by Selina McCoy. Perhaps Muiris O’Connor’s optimism that we can soon attain a golden age for Irish universities is well-founded after all!