Rising Student Numbers Have Harmed Universities -Higher Education is Broken Series, Part 2

Governments across the world have, to varying degrees, exercised control over universities. In the English-speaking world in particular, alternating waves of Reaganite or Thatcherite economics, the so called economic rationalism, have been juxtaposed with more left-wing social opportunity and equality policies. All of these have impacted universities in various unexpected ways.

This series of articles examines the deep and profound structural issues in post-secondary and adult education, examines the disruptive forces at work and works towards a new model of adult education that can truly work for all.

Here is part two. There is a bit of stats in this article as this information forms an important background for many of the articles to follow.

Government Interventions Have Screwed Universities Up, With Help from the Universities Themselves

It seems to be a fact of life that governments often screw up much more than they fix. I think this reflects the complexity of the world and that what makes sense from one perspective can look very different from another, and especially with hindsight.

I started my lifelong engagement with universities in 1977 when I began my undergraduate degree in Computer Science in Australia. In that year approximately 9.5% of 17 to 22 year old’s were in higher education. This was the period of free university education in Australia and I was the first in my family to attend university. At the time, this was a very high participation rate compared to the past. Compared to now, though, it was very low.

A Broad Rise

Across the world, higher education has undergone major change and growth since the Second World War.

If we focus on certain countries, we see this graph from the same source.

In the US you can see that a steady rise through the 70’s and early 80’s was followed by a rapid rise in the late 80’s, to see it plateau and even retreat through the 90’s, to continue a rise through the 00’s. In Australia a steady rise through the 70’s and early 80’s was followed by a sharper rise in the late 80’s with a massive jump in the early 90’s. The UK followed a roughly similar rise, without the sharp jump Australia experienced.


It is worth having a deeper look at how higher education has developed over time.

Universities evolved to educate a very small percentage of the population. Prior to the 20th Century, university attendance was tiny. In the US by 1940 roughly 4.5% of the population had a four year degree. In the UK in 1960 still only 4% of school leavers attended university. In 1921 in Australia only 1.4% of 17–22 year old’s went on to university. This had risen to 1.9% in 1939, but had reached 6% by 1960.

What this means is that universities had developed to educate very small numbers of students, and they would mostly be drawn from families with a tradition of university education. Such students, usually with good results at the end of high school, could be expected to learn no matter how they were taught. University structures and practices had developed to handle this small number of students.

It is also important to remember that very few professions required a degree through the 1960’s. At this time the pathway into many professions was the apprenticeship. For example, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that universities and technical colleges in Australia even started offering accounting qualifications, and degrees did not become the main pathway into the profession until much later. The head of the accounting firm I use for my businesses was trained by apprenticeship. The example I’ve given of accounting is true across a huge number of professions.

Embedded Structures and Philosophies

It is a long running joke that universities change slowly, but the reality is even worse than most people think. As we’ve seen, the growth in university enrolments did not really start until after WWII. So for much of the foundation period of universities they were focused on only dealing with the best and brightest students, and on very small quantities of them. I’ll call these the two foundations — bright students and small numbers.

These two foundations led to all of the ways that universities operate to this very day. The fact that you need no training in education to ‘teach’ at a university is still there to this very day, for example. I’ll focus on this in another article. The broad independence of academics to run their subjects the way they want is still there, though recently slightly encroached upon. Academia being its own, separate world, is still there today, with its own ideas of publishing, writing, behaviour and distrust of ‘outsiders’, such as administrators. Its origins as a ‘gentleman’s’ pastime persists as a subtle ignorance and hatred of money, even while being growingly dependant on such to fund research, not to mention a boys club attitude to women that sadly still persists in some disciplines.

We’ll be referring back to these attitudes and philosophies throughout this series of articles.

Growing Student Numbers

The growth in student numbers after the war was driven by two factors: a growing realisation in the public mind that better education led to better jobs and a push by government to drive more students through high school and then on into higher education of one form or another.

In most countries higher education is tightly controlled by government, through both the licensing and regulation of the institutions themselves (which is an outgrowth of the ‘royal charter’ concept) and a tight control of funding, both for teaching and for research. This tight government control, however, usually ‘stops at the door’ of the major universities and provides limited government scrutiny internally. In Australia, for example, higher education standards are set by a government body called TEQSA (the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency). The universities (a government regulated term in Australia) are usually self-governing for the accrediting of courses. Similar situations apply in most countries, where there is looser control of the established players and more government attention on the newer and ‘for profit’ sectors of higher education.

These governing and monitoring organisations, like TEQSA in Australia, are generally under resourced and, of course, staffed with people who have come through the university system and thus believe that this is the way things are done. Many have no or little training in education. There is often a compliance mentality, if the paperwork looks good then everything must be ok. This approach is a disaster.

In some countries, like Australia and the UK, the price paid by students for courses and the number of university places is commonly controlled by government. In others, like the US, a somewhat more liberal free enterprise model applies. Government support and funding for students is provided in many countries, and thus becomes a major focus of government policy. So the norm of old of personally paying to study at university was changed (usually after WWII) into one where the government paid all or part of one’s fees in many countries. Shifts to the right in many countries since have been gradually reversing this trend, and shifting more to a ‘user pays’ model, usually with significant conflict and resistance to doing so.

Feeding into university change was the corresponding change in high school completion. Using figures from Australia, but with similar ones across the Western world, we see that while in 1980 35% of school leavers had graduated high school, this had risen to 78% by 1994, and in 2018 was at 85%. Now for a statement many will find confronting: since there has been no significant rise in intelligence over that period and no significant improvement in the quality of high school education, we must conclude that the quality of students graduating high school has significantly fallen.

Over many conversations in staff common rooms it is clear that there is a belief that governments have at least partly driven students to stay in high school longer and then go into higher education as it looks better than inflating the already high levels of youth unemployment in many countries.

In my time in higher education I have experienced many periods of major government change in university policy. The graph below shows changes in students numbers over the early part of my academic career.

You can see significant jumps in the graph over fairly short periods of time.

In this graph below you can see the significant fall in the Australian government funding provided per effective full time student, expressed in 1990 dollars, taken from a Deakin University report.


What I’ve tried to paint with the above discussions is the board background of the situation in universities today. I would call it a perfect storm.

We have rapid growth in student numbers, with a greater percentage of students completing high school and then going on to university. We have universities designed for small numbers of bright students, and a massive resistance to change in ways of doing things. We have governments constantly fiddling with both student numbers and their funding of such students.

The result is a lowering of student quality entering university and a lowering of standards in universities, leading to lower quality graduates.

Now I can picture the screams from many, but the logic is simple — no rise in intelligence or quality of training, but a massive rise in the percentage of students going to university means you are accepting students lower down the ability scale. No rise in failing students out of university (in fact it has dropped), and no real improvement in the way universities teach, means a drop in the quality of those graduating.

Universities now put a lot of pressure on academics over ‘progression rates’, ‘retention rates’ and ‘pass rates’. Given this, there is only one response that is possible, the lowering of standards. As we will see in other articles in this series, other pressures, such as to publish research, bringing in research grants and the often lower income per student coming into universities aggravate this trend.

While the best graduates are still amazing, there is now a much longer tail of poor performing students who have ‘just made it through’.

This means an undergraduate degree means less today than it did 30 years ago. This has led to a rise in the better students doing higher degrees to better differentiate themselves from the masses. But the price is even higher debt and a bigger time investment.

What to Do

As I’ve also been questioning in other articles, we need to actually go back to first principles and re-evaluate all education, how we do it, why we do it and the structures we need in place. We also need to re-examine whether general education should still be as work-focused as it has become, especially given the discussions about a post-work world that is starting to emerge as a consequence of rapid automation.

Businesses need to start re-evaluating their selection criteria. The recent move by Google to count short industry training as the equivalent of a four year degree is a great example of this already happening. Businesses need to consider whether degrees are necessary at all for so many roles.

Students need to start ignoring the advice of high school career advisors (who are stuck in the old model) and start looking at alternative pathways. Many are already doing this, but more need to start thinking like a consumer. What will they get for investing three or four years of their life and incurring a significant debt as well? What is the value in doing a business degree when you will be mostly taught by people with no actual experience in business?

We’ll have a lot more to say about the above as we progress through this series of articles.

Coming Up Next

The next article in this series looks at what it is really like to be a university academic today, what they spend their time doing and what their actual training consists of. This will come as a shock to many people.

Artist, Author, Druid, Educator, Polymath, Technologist. CEO TechnoMagickal. Co-Founder, CTO and Chief Learning Officer, TMRW Group. Ed Lead, Octivo Australia.

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