Higher education institutions around the world share three big challenges. Can new development goals set by the United Nations nudge universities towards solving them? The British Council's Nan Yeld answers.
Three major headaches: access, quality, affordability
Ask any university manager to name their three major headaches, and you’re likely to hear something along the following lines. How do you increase access to higher education? How can you maintain and improve quality? And how do you make sure it's affordable?
With precision, the fourth of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) homes in on all three issues. By 2030, the UN wants 'equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university'.
The answers to these questions must be nuanced. Higher education is context-specific, so it's not easy to generalise. Let's look at widening access first.
More young people are going to university
If you look at the global picture, access numbers look pretty good. More young people are signing up for higher education: according to UNESCO statistics, 32.9 per cent of the world's young people were enrolled in tertiary education in 2013 (up from 26 per cent in 2007). But if you break down the figures, you'll see that traditional inequalities remain. Less well-off countries still lag behind; in low- and lower-middle-income countries, only 9.1 per cent of young people were in higher education in 2007, jumping to 23.2 per cent in 2013. Middle- and upper-middle-income countries had a head-start: their enrolment numbers went from 29.5 per cent to 36.7 per cent in the six-year period. Through a geographic lens, the differences are even more striking. In Europe, 68 per cent of young people study at university or college. In Africa, it's only 12.1 per cent.
Poorer countries find it tougher to cope with more students
These figures show that growth in enrolments will come largely from less well-off countries, where currently fewer young people go to university. This poses two problems.
First, it is of course precisely these countries that face the most acute funding challenges. Relevant, high-quality programmes cost money. So do staff salaries. To deal with the growth in student numbers, universities need a large and capable academic workforce. Recruiting, developing and retaining staff is a challenge most sharply felt by, although certainly not confined to, low- and lower-middle-income countries. Improving their employees' academic qualifications alone is no longer enough: the demands on modern universities are such that academics also need to be able to contribute to the overall quality of educational processes. This involves research, teaching and learning, social responsiveness and academic leadership and management. Wider access will also place a premium on excellent teaching skills. Academics who can bring struggling first-years up to speed will find themselves in demand.
Second, many lower-income countries have rolled out schools at high speed. Such rapid expansion places extreme pressure on school systems, which face an severe shortage of qualified teachers. Studies show that the global teacher shortage at primary school level alone is about 2.7 million. So it is not surprising that quality suffers when systems expand. From the perspective of higher education, this can mean that school-leavers aren't prepared for the rigours of a degree. This brings us to the next issue: quality.
School leavers aren't prepared for university
If we are to get more young people into higher education, we need to make sure that both they and the institutions they will enter are ready. It should be obvious that, in any country, higher education must start where the public secondary school system leaves off; not at some idealised notion of where schools should finish. It follows that the programmes and levels of support offered to first-year students must match where students actually are in terms of educational preparedness, to avoid what is called an articulation gap.
If not, many students will drop out at the end of their first year, or progress through their undergraduate study at an agonisingly slow and marginal rate. But designing curricula and other forms of support to meet incoming students' needs is a complex task, requiring scarce expertise. It often entails planning an extra year for students to catch up, so it's also commonly viewed as ruinously expensive. Strangely, the costs of mass failure or poor performance are seldom factored into such views.
Community colleges could help school leavers catch up
One answer to this problem is to set up a different kind of institution to bring students up to speed, instead of relying on universities to do the hard work. An example is the community college system in the US. These colleges excel at providing accessible post-school education and skills, such as teaching English to first-generation students. But their success in terms of preparing students for degree-granting study has been limited. They are also somewhat controversial, as they are attended overwhelmingly by minority, disadvantaged, or marginalised groups. As a result, they are sometimes seen as a way to protect four-year degree institutions from fully integrating and transforming their programmes and traditions.
Lowering cut-offs: an effective but risky way to increase access
One widely adopted way to broaden access is to lower the academic standards required to get into some courses. This approach can be very successful for popular degrees such as medicine, where cut-off points are based on a need to limit numbers, and many well-qualified applicants do not make the grade. However, it can be risky. For some courses, the cut-off point is based on an assessment of the level of performance required to succeed. In these cases, it's critical that students have achieved this level of performance before they begin the course. The consequence of admitting those who aren't up to scratch can be high failure rates, and eventual stigmatisation.
Before signing up more students, look at the whole study experience
These plans need to be linked to appropriate academic support, such as career development advice from the outset; flexible curriculum routes to meet the differing needs of students from diverse educational backgrounds; and proper student housing. The bottom line is that, without an approach that takes the whole picture into account, course completion rates will drop to unacceptable levels, or the quality of programmes will slump.
If you want more students, you need more funds
The third issue is affordability. The SDG goal of ensuring that higher education is affordable for all raises a number of issues. Whatever the approach, more students mean greater costs. Universities should beware of trying to limit these expenses by increasing class sizes, relying on temporary and part-time staff, or deferring building and equipment maintenance. Cutting corners in higher education can have serious and long-lasting adverse consequences.
Online courses aren't necessarily cheaper
Some people expect digital educational technologies to solve problems of access, teaching and learning, and affordability. It's certainly true that information and communication technologies (ICTs) have enormous potential to improve learning and widen access to information. In fact, this is already happening. But several caveats are important.
First, developing and running a good e-learning course (blended or fully online) can be just as expensive, at least in the short- to medium-term, as traditional teaching in a lecture hall or laboratory. Academics still need to give their students effective, timely feedback, irrespective of the mode in which it is delivered. This can't be automated to any meaningful extent.
Second, one of the appeals of e-learning courses is their seeming portability. However, whatever the mode of delivery, courses and programmes developed in one context – geographical, historical, ideological, or other - are limited in the extent to which they may be transferred to another. In higher education, one size doesn't fit all, as the recent and continuing #RhodesMustFall student movement in South Africa, with its emphasis on ‘decolonising the curriculum’, has forcefully reminded us all.
Third, the amount of work involved to design or modify an online curriculum should not be underestimated. Integrating learning materials and approaches into other contexts takes time and energy. Indeed, training staff to use computers as more than content repositories – that is, to exploit fully their use as learning tools – is an enormous and on-going professional development effort, given the speed at which educational technology is changing.
Universities are searching for new ways to fund themselves
Another approach to the affordability problem is to increase the contribution made by the state. This solution is unlikely to be able to be adopted in the present economic climate, particularly in less well-off countries. Yet another alternative is raising fees, which immediately affects access for poor students. And still other universities are trying to raise revenue through fund-raising or ‘third-stream income’ such as funded research contracts, which, unless carefully planned and managed, can dilute universities' efforts and focus from their core business: teaching and independent research. To mitigate the impact of fees on students, several countries have established some form of student loan scheme. These are undoubtedly beneficial in many respects, but difficult to maintain in contexts where youth unemployment is high (and loan repayment therefore erratic and slow), as is the case in many less wealthy countries.
Cultural traditions make university more (or less) expensive
Cultural traditions play a large part in determining the costs of tertiary education in ways that are seldom examined. To give a brief example, in Australia it is overwhelmingly the case that students attend their local university, at least for undergraduate study. Since the country is highly urbanised, this means that a very low proportion of students require housing and feeding. This hugely reduces the cost of going to university. By contrast, in the UK and the US, it has been customary for undergraduates to leave home for university study (although the introduction of fees in the UK has started to mean more students are staying local). This is just one taken-for-granted tradition that is seldom questioned, but has major implications and needs more analysis.
Despite these issues, including higher education in the SDGs is a welcome development. It will help to reverse the demoralising and negative effect on the sector of the decision taken in the 1980s and 1990s to pull funding away from tertiary into more basic education levels. Setting the goals is the first step to reaching them.
An exhibition on the Sustainable Development Goals was held at the British Council's Spring Gardens headquarters in London on 29 February - 8 April 2016.
To get a deeper understanding of the issues facing higher education, attend the British Council's flagship higher education conference, Going Global, held in Cape Town, South Africa, on 3 - 5 May 2016.
Sessions will include Decolonising the curriculum: a catalyst for change and Open learning and Africa: capitalising on innovation.