In discussions about higher education one often hears the question: "why on earth should everyone study at university?" Indeed, should each and every school graduate have the right and possibility to study at university? And, if the answer is affirmative, what does that mean for our higher education system?
Since the development of systems for the accreditation and authorization of universities and the establishment of the unified entry examination in Georgia, the admittance policy for students has changed quite notably several times. Initially, the number of places at universities was significantly cut, but thereafter the attitude became more liberal. According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, in 2006 only 16,000 students were admitted to universities, whilst in 2009 this number rose to over 30,000.
At the same time, the number of school students dramatically dropped. The 2000-2001 academic year counted approximately 720,000 students enrolled in general education schools with an 11-year duration of studies. Today, however, up to 550,000 students are enrolled in such schools and the duration of studies has risen to 12 years. It is from the plummeting number of school students and the rising number of university students that we obtain the increasing share of school graduates who have entered university. In 2005, every tenth school graduate, on average, became a student of a higher educational institution, whereas today this figure stands at every second school graduate.
In parallel with this process, the number of higher educational institutions shrank almost four-fold over the past 10 years. Consequently, the rise in the number of university students can be explained by the increase in the number of places in existing universities.
The dramatic increase in the number of university students poses a significant challenge for the higher education sector. Higher educational institutions currently have to mobilize their physical and intellectual resources to the maximum extent in order to even maintain the existing quality of education, let alone improve it.
The lack of resources is a problem faced not only by Georgia. According to the 2009 UNESCO report, "Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution," the number of students worldwide increased by 53 percent from between 2000 and 2009. To meet increased demands, higher educational institutions have had to lower the qualification requirements for their professoriate. According to this report, only nine percent of academic personnel of universities in China and 35 percent of those in India had bachelor's degrees, whilst in Latin America up to 80% of the professoriate was employed part-time.
In 2006 only 16,000 students were admitted to universities, whilst in 2009 this number rose to over 30,000. At the same time, the 2000-2001 academic year counted approximately 720,000 students enrolled in general education schools with an 11-year duration of studies. Today, however, up to 550,000 students are enrolled in such schools and the duration of studies has risen to 12 years.
The mass admittance of students to universities also entails changes to the level of complexity in academic programs. With students of medium to low competences also entering higher educational institutions, universities respond by simplifying their internal academic requirements.
The rise in the number of people with higher education, in turn, causes a deflation of the value of academic degrees. The greater the number of people with an education obtained at a certain level, the lower the added value of that education. For example, if applicants for a specific job include people both with and without higher education, higher education qualifications may be used as a sign of preference. However, if every applicant has higher education, the employer will find it difficult to use this criterion for selecting the best candidate.
The mass of students wishing to enter universities poses a serious challenge for schools too. Under the primitive system of admittance to universities that exists in Georgia, whereby students are enrolled in higher educational institutions according to the results of exams alone, general education schools are increasingly demanded to conduct not a broad and deep educational process, but merely to pursue the narrow goal of preparing students for those exams. The function of school is thus deviated from the complex objective of preparing children for life towards the technical aim of preparing them for university exams.
Bearing this problem in mind, how justified is it for society to allow higher educational institutions to constantly increase the number of places and turn university education into a mass product?
Those about to graduate from school develop a desire to study at university not only to obtain symbolic status, but also for pragmatic gain. Study at higher educational institutions offers the possibility to expand those social networks which facilitate everyday success. If during their school years students can only build ties with residents of the district they live in, the possibilities of accumulating social capital are significantly enhanced at the university level. Some will meet their future business partners, whilst many their future spouses, at the same university, thereby increasing their chances of having life companions from their own social circle.
Modern employment requirements also demand higher competences that cannot be developed from the education obtained at general schools alone. Earlier, school graduates might have been required to perform a standard mechanical job on an assembly line in a production enterprise; whereas today they will likely need many skills for management and the use of technology to achieve success. At the same time, when employment opportunities are scarce, the demand for higher education increases.
Clearly, a decrease in the number of places at higher educational institutions would raise the symbolic importance of university degrees. That would, however, also increase the advantage representatives of the elite have to attend university. Those who have better educated parents and greater financial resources to obtain a better-quality school education, prepare for the university entrance exams, and cover the costs of university have greater chances of obtaining higher education.
Research in social reproduction has revealed how the middle class applies the education system to maintain their social position. The middle class does not include middle-income citizens alone, but mainly consists of those who earn a living by performing intellectual work. Members of this group not only speak about the necessity of university barriers, but also take practical steps to ensure the existence of a school system that gives preferences to their children.
An elitist education system, one that is available only or mainly for representatives of the elite, creates artificial barriers for social mobility inside a society. In a static society, it is difficult for an individual to overcome poverty by means of getting a better education and, consequently, earning a higher income.
Instrumental barriers to an elitist system can be created by applying abstract criteria, which are sometimes perceived as being so natural that one hardly hears anyone question their fairness. For example, why should preference be given to those university applicants who are better prepared in a specific subject and not to those who are most willing to study or those who need to study the most? Why should preference be given to anyone wishing to study at university based on any characteristic?
Let's imagine that the number of those who want to use a library is higher than the number of seats in it. How should it be decided who is able to get a seat and read a book? If this process is arranged according to the pattern of organizing higher education admissions, preference should be given to those who have read the greater number of books. It is doubtful, however, whether such a policy would prove most effective for educating society. The system of admittance to universities, however, is based exactly on such reasoning.
General education schools also went through a stage of elitism. Regardless of the fact that today the value of a school graduation certificate is lower than it was at the end of the 19th century, it is a positive development that the majority of citizens now obtain a general education. The knowledge, skills and values acquired at school are important, not only for personal success, but also for the functioning of a democratic society. The system of higher education is going through a similar form of transformation today.
If the massification of higher education jeopardizes the quality of higher education, whilst an artificial decrease in university places restricts fairness and the possibility of social or economic development, what is the solution to this dilemma?
The answer lies in the parallel existence of mass and elite education, which can be achieved by enhancing the diversity of the higher education system. Under a free system, there will be universities, or university faculties, where the academic requirements, programs and the degrees of the corresponding personnel are higher. The value of diplomas from these universities – both symbolic and financial – will be higher than those from the universities oriented on mass education.
For mass and elite universities to exist simultaneously, it is important: a) that higher educational institutions have stable incomes that are not tied to students' payments, which can be raised through developing institutional funds and establishing business ties, and b) that a system of student admittance is established that goes beyond just the results of exams, i.e. without the active involvement of universities.
The state, for its part, must focus on helping as many school graduates as possible who are unable to continue their studies at higher educational institutions because of financial constraints. As a result, we will gain a situation whereby every willing school graduate will have the possibility and the right to study at higher educational institutions, which will no longer pose a problem for the development of university education.