We need a dynamic new model for post-secondary education
Ellen Hazelkorn 20 June 2023
Near universal participation in higher education has been a huge achievement for OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. As we look towards the future, globalisation and geopolitical shifts, an ageing population, the technological and digital revolutions, and strategies for a sustainable green and blue economy will continue to reshape our societies, how and where we live and the world of work.
How will or should these developments impact on our model of higher educational provision which has remained relatively unchanged as if it was still a system catering to a small elite? After all, the top 100 universities listed by the Shanghai ARWU (Academic Ranking of World Universities) represent only around 1.4% of total students worldwide, and around 4% of European Union students.
Attention is increasingly drawn to the other 50% – learners gradually being ‘left behind’ by the current system and-or unable to access the system in any meaningful or sustained way. This is having consequences for social cohesion, political participation and trust in our institutions.
Much more radical thinking is required as to how we structure, govern, fund and deliver post-secondary education. This is driving many countries to reframe the policy discussion around tertiary education. But, beyond the headlines, what do we mean by a tertiary education system? What do we want to achieve?
Towards tertiary ecosystems
The United States was the first country to experience massification and the 1960s prompted a dynamic and far-reaching conversation in the country about growing popular demand for, participation in, access to and the public mission of, higher education. By then, 45% of California’s college-age population were already matriculating to higher education compared with a national average of only 25%.
The Master Plan – attributed to Clark Kerr although he was just one of the authors – was an attempt to design the public system to address the twin issues of massification and diversification – and arguably resources. It aimed to create and preserve three distinct subsectors – or, more accurately, tiers – based on the principle of division of labour, talent and knowledge production.
While providing a route to opportunity, it sought to enforce clear boundaries between elite research-intensive universities, mid-ranking teaching and research universities, and open access community colleges – with pathways ‘upwards’ between them.
The Plan anticipated Martin Trow’s conceptualisation of the transition from elite to mass or universal higher education. While the Master Plan proffered the “idea of higher education as more than a collection of individual institutions”, Trow considered the way in which higher education would come to be defined and changed by ‘problems’ – I prefer ‘challenges’ – of expansion.
This would affect not only governance arrangements, delivery modes and other matters but also the interaction between higher education and the state, and wider society – a theme taken up by Burton R Clark in his work on ‘co-ordination’.
By the 1990s, discussion switched to Europe, and elsewhere, as massification took off in these countries and regions.
Three brief observations.
First, what’s clear – and arguably understandable given the circumstances – is that the focus was on higher education. The supremacy of the knowledge economy and human capital paradigms, alongside formalisation of the bachelor-masters-doctorate ladder, converged to distinguish and boost the significance of the research university sector.
The rise of global rankings, and the battle for talent, reinforced its role as the gateway to the global economy. The post-secondary space not only became defined by higher education – or more precisely by universities – but universities were effectively affirmed by policy-makers and scholars alike as the post-secondary system – and resources have been directed accordingly.
Second, as a result, the rest of the post-secondary sector – which caters for most of our learners in highly diverse and specialised institutions – has been effectively air-brushed out of consideration. While Kerr acknowledged the role played by community colleges, the California Plan was arguably intent on preserving the elite role of the research- and resource-intensive University of California system.
The community colleges have been or are rightly praised as being an entry route for widening participation and open access, but sadly they are more likely to be less-funded and their students less-resourced despite the population they serve.
Third, post-secondary education, not simply higher education, is increasingly and widely recognised as a vital component of our societies’ and economies’ infrastructure. However, the sector has been allowed to evolve in an ad hoc and haphazard way.
Diversity and differentiation are considered key concepts of mass systems of education – albeit too often they have led to static configurations with impermeable barriers reinforcing social stratification according to labour market requirements and simplistic assumptions about knowledge production (ie, basic vs applied).
While the Master Plan was praised for “preserving the separate ‘missions’ of the three types of public institutions”, other countries ‘solved’ the problem by implementing a strict binary between traditional universities and what were pejoratively called ‘non-universities’.
That the boundaries are rigid and systems static is often seen as a virtue, but it has also been a huge disadvantage. Over time, societies and labour markets have changed and disciplines have moved up the value chain, leading boundaries to blur.
There has been a seismic shift from simplistic differentiators to a broader understanding of diversity: public and private; national and international; global and corporate; academic, technical, vocational and professional; comprehensive and specialist; campus-based and virtual, etc, as well as institutions straddling categories.
It is clear that the thinking and models that underpinned the first phase of massification are no longer appropriate to meet individual and societal demands and requirements today and into the future. After all, children born today, and our students, will live into the next century.
Accordingly, I want to suggest we talk about the tertiary ecosystem.
The concept of systemness has been credited to Neil Smelser who described the modern research university as a “multi-campus network” of inter-related parts and relationships.
Nancy Zimpher operationalised the concept during her tenure as chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) System. In 2013, she wrote: “Systemness is the ability of a system to coordinate the activities of its constituent campus so that, on the whole, the system behaves in a way that is more powerful and impactful than what can be achieved by individual campuses acting alone.”
I refer to this as maximising capacity beyond individual capability.
The concept exposed underlying tensions between ‘flagships’ and the rest of the post- secondary system, to which Zimpher retorted that flagships are not “owed some kind of privileged treatment”. Despite this exchange, system thinking, like that of SUNY’s Higher Education Systems 3.0, is still focused on ‘shaping a higher education system’.
I propose instead to adapt the concept of ecosystem. In doing so, I am deliberately widening our lens to embrace the entire post-secondary landscape as one in which different types of education, training, and research and innovation (R&I) actors interact with each other in formal, informal and non-formal arrangements which are mutually and societally beneficial and interdependent (open/hidden).
The ecosystem is a dynamic space wherein the number, type, role and responsibilities of providers, individually and collectively, evolves and modifies over time in response to the changing environment. Whilst recognising distinct missions, notably there is no implicit hierarchy.
Five different sets of ideas have influenced my thinking:
• The Civic or Engaged University foregrounds engagement, the co-production of knowledge and public value because complex problems require collaborative solutions. Most significantly, collaboration involves not just academics and enterprise but all educational providers as well as schools and civic society.
• Innovation Networks and Regional Clusters – R&I depends on and derives from interactions across a network of different actors, conducted increasingly through multilateral, inter-regional and global networks because complex problems require collaborative solutions. This is the substantive message of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
• Geography of Place – Being place-based and place-responsive is an approach which starts from understanding the interconnections and relationships between the physical place (rural and urban) and socio-economic issues. Schools, colleges and universities are active contributors to place-making, innovation and social and economic development – as collaborators and co-producers but not sole providers of new ideas or outcomes.
• Governance is underpinned by strategic vision and sustainable arrangements to ensure coherence, collaboration and coordination between different actors, each of which have their own internal logics and ambitions.
• Biodiversity describes the rich variation of life forms wherein each species plays a critical role, mutually supporting each other, without which the entire system may collapse.
Together, these concepts embody the four Cs of coherence, collaboration, coordination and co-production – without which a dynamic tertiary education ecosystem is not possible or achievable.
Over the last 50 years or so, post-secondary education has arguably been democratised. In 2022, the share of 25- to 34-year-olds with a tertiary qualification in OECD member countries exceeded 50%.
On average across the OECD, 78% of first-time tertiary graduates completed a bachelor degree, with only 18% completing a short-cycle tertiary diploma. EU data shows only 9% of first-time tertiary graduates were short-cycle TVET (technical and vocational education and training) or FET (further education and training) graduates.
Over the next decades, participation in advanced countries will grow at a slower rate in contrast to the Global South, which is expected to expand. This growth is reflected in the growing number of universities, rising from around 12,000 in 1997 to over 20,000 officially accredited or recognised higher education institutions today. Notably, there is no comprehensive data on the rest of the post-secondary system.
In advanced economies, while economic and technological requirements for labour have pushed skill demand beyond secondary education, the pursuit of status and social advantage has driven demand for degree-level qualifications. These developments are leading to an increasingly polarised labour market between highest- and lowest-skilled and paid occupations alongside a hollowing out of middle-skilled jobs.
We tend to focus on the rising demand for higher skills but ignore the fact that almost 45% of jobs will require medium-level skills – those which require some post-secondary education and training but less than a four-year college degree. This is having visible consequences for equity, social cohesion and political participation.
As post-secondary education has expanded and evolved, it has diversified. Learners now include people previously unable to access education due to socio-economic circumstances, age, gender, race or ethnicity, and citizenship status, as well as people combining study with work or family responsibilities.
In response, new types of institutions with different missions, programmes and modes of study have emerged to meet the demands and needs of this diverse cohort of learners and of society – many of which are in the private sector. However, there has often been reluctance to consider further or adult education, continuing education or even lifelong learning as a key part of the tertiary landscape.
Even the term ‘lifelong learning’ ignores the fact that all learners are lifelong learners. Over time boundaries between vocational, professional and academic have become porous.
Emphasis on learning outcomes and employability have meant traditional universities and polytechnics often offer similar programmes. Indeed, professional or vocational education now constitutes a significant proportion of all programmes in universities while mounting professionalisation of many other fields has created a credential domino-effect throughout the wider post-secondary system.
Having said this, I think it is important to acknowledge that vocational or practice-based education and training is an approach to teaching and learning and not necessarily something to be ascribed to a type of institution.
Higher education is clearly delineated by easily recognisable qualifications (bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees) whereas provision of and attitudes to the ‘non-university’ sector vary considerably. The nomenclature itself illustrates the extent to which academic and public discourse and policy has often framed these institutions, and their students, as ‘the other’.
Different types of credentials and descriptors, often with little recognition beyond their country, also make it hard to track and compare.
The decline of TVET/FET
As higher education participation has risen, TVET/FET has declined – seen only as an alternative access route to higher education or a provider ‘of last resort’.
Courses are often limited in nature and-or perceived as a dead end. Allegations of boundary crossing and ‘mission creep’ – usually made by research universities about other institutions rather than the other way round – accelerate system tensions.
As demographics play havoc with university enrolment, predatory behaviour and cannibalisation of courses, egged on by funding systems, are common. Even learning pathways – an important widening access strategy – are often dominated by higher education.
Higher technical and vocational education has been given a lower priority in education and training policies in favour of expanding higher education. Yet there are genuine issues, such as a growing list of critical (middle) skills needs, with the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) showing poor adult skills and evidence of employers bypassing academic credentials or developing their own – which are raising questions about quality assurance.
Regionalism and regional disparities are another key concern. The United Nations estimates that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050 – around which social, cultural and economic life concentrates disproportionately. As this happens, gaps in opportunities and social-economic divisions widen.
While there are few countries that don’t have some form of regional policy, it is rarely coherent across government portfolios or integrated with the education system – and vice versa.
Demographic changes pose another significant challenge. In many OECD countries, the traditional post-secondary education cohort is declining as older people grow as a percentage of the population. They will require upskilling, re-skilling or repurposing of their qualifications in response to changes in the labour market – or their own personal life choices.
But higher education has been slow to adapt and TVET/FET colleges – while usually more open to mature learners – have not readily developed ways for people to build on their credentials.
Meeting the needs of a more diverse learner population requires significant changes in the way post-secondary education is designed, delivered, assessed and funded.
The creation of regional research and innovation ecosystems forms a key part of place-based and place-responsive smart specialisation strategies. By putting so much focus on research universities and start-ups, however, we miss the key point. It is people or our graduates who catalyse knowledge, contribute to a shared pool of ideas throughout society and drive or lead innovation, not the institutions.
This lacuna has skewed our understanding and appreciation of TVET/FET whose graduates have the capacity to support innovation by raising the overall productive levels and absorptive capacity in high-tech as well as low-tech industries.
They can play a huge role creating intrapreneurs as well as entrepreneurs because product and social innovation can be equally, if not more, powerful than technological innovation. And it is vital for reskilling and upskilling former ‘industrial’ areas. Indeed, it will be impossible to close the regional disparity gap if we fail to understand that people are stickier than knowledge.
Models for financing our systems vary considerably, but they principally focus on college-ready full-time undergraduate learners and higher education. Spending per learner is highest at the tertiary level, and higher again for those institutions that undertake research.
In contrast, funding for mature learners, lifelong learning opportunities and the quality of facilities and supports tend to be limited, and don’t take sufficient account of challenges experienced by diverse learners and those with family or other responsibilities. This imbalance fuels public perceptions as to which educational opportunities are more favoured.
Moreover, the idea that we can develop a funding system separately from a coherent vision and strategy is nonsense. And that’s what is happening – the fees lobby trumps logic.
Governance arrangements also differ. The California Master Plan and traditional binary arrangements appeared to be settled arrangements, but they have proven to be inflexible and unresponsive to societal and economic changes. At the same time, there is a realisation that quality outcomes for the tertiary system depend on the educational system as a whole.
Creating a separate further and higher education and R&I ministry is a good idea as long as it doesn’t sever the post-secondary system from the rest of the educational system.
These developments are forcing policy-makers – and all of us concerned with education and society – to focus on longstanding weaknesses in the education and training systems, and the way in which post-secondary education is being delivered and funded.
Assumptions that massification would on its own provide opportunities for everyone with mechanisms for social inclusion and mobility are being heavily questioned, and entry routes are now seen as just as likely to close off educational and career opportunities as to open them.
Getting the balance right can be tricky, not least because existing boundaries between, and biases about, academic, professional, vocational and technical or technological education and training are blocking innovative thinking.
Setting out objectives is arguably the easy part. There is no simple blueprint and context matters. Our systems have evolved over decades in somewhat chaotic and confusing ways; there are many types of institutions, and social-cultural aspirations have an over-determining influence over institutional and disciplinary choices no matter how much we try or wish to influence learner choices.
The focus is usually on public institutions, but the private sector should be part of the conversation – their graduates are also part of our society.
Making change is complicated and can be messy and costly. And governments are notoriously poor at long-term thinking and investing in the future. Policy alignment, consistency (not always possible where ideological factors dominate) and time are critical but not always realistic given the political or electoral calendar.
This could change as there are signs, post-COVID, that citizens have far greater expectations of the state and its role, and states themselves are more willing to engage directly in actions of strategic importance. The big state is back.
Elements of a tertiary ecosystem
Ideas doing the rounds include setting up a Single Integrated Agency for Tertiary Education as the over-arching governance, regulatory and performance structure for the tertiary system and significantly strengthening the TVET/FET system.
As the UK Independent Commission on the College of the Future recommends, there is an urgent need for a long-term vision for education and training from school to adults – and arguably from cradle to grave.
Considerable support for building strategic capacity, updating curriculums and investing in human and capital resources – effectively the same attention and funding that has been poured into universities over the decades – must now be applied to TVET/FET.
In many countries, such as the UK, further and higher education, and apprenticeships are treated as distinct systems, making it hard for people and employers to access the system – while excessive competition reduces opportunities and quality provision.
Guided and navigable learning pathways and dual-study programmes are a positive development, but they run the serious risk of simply reinforcing the primacy of FET as an alternative pathway to higher education. Likewise, too much emphasis on bilateral agreements or narrow pathways would simply capture learners and restrict opportunity and choice.
If policy remains fixated on traditional college-ready, full-time undergraduate students studying on a campus or residential model, little will change.
Fundamentally, before we do anything, we need a whole-of-tertiary vision and strategy rather than cherry-picking populist initiatives. The post-secondary agenda is huge and has been ignored for far too long.
No room for complacency
My thesis is that while our systems of education and training have served our societies and economies well over decades, they have also contributed to deep pools of inequality and wasted talent and opportunity. To these are now added the elements I began with that are changing our world in fundamental ways and require an innovative policy response across our post-secondary education and training systems.
The rapid and far-reaching nature of change is reflected in the fundamental and extraordinarily rapid development of artificial intelligence. ChatGPT is but one, and maybe not even the most worrying, aspect.
Not only is there no room for complacency, but our societies need to issue a call to arms to our education and training system – at all levels – and to those who make policy, plan and invest. Collaboration across educational boundaries must also underpin research and inform innovative thinking.
At the post-secondary level, a unified, well-governed and well-financed tertiary education and training system offers the best way forward – breaking down decades of barriers and prejudices and putting the needs of learners, of all ages, backgrounds and abilities, front and centre as it responds to their individual talents, ambitions, motivations and life circumstances.
Professor Ellen Hazelkorn is joint managing partner, BH Associates education consultants. She is professor emeritus at the Technological University Dublin in Ireland and joint editor of Policy Reviews in Higher Education. Hazelkorn is a member of the Centre for Global Higher Education Advisory Board and Research Management Committee and research fellow at the Centre for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States. She is, inter alia, a member of the Quality Board for Icelandic Higher Education, the EU Higher Education for Smart Specialisation Advisory Group, and the Committee for Strategic Advice, EURASHE (the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education). Hazelkorn is currently undertaking a mid-term review of the Irish Further Education and Training Strategy, and advising the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in Ireland with respect to Progressing a Unified Tertiary System for Learning, Skills and Knowledge. This is an edited version of her lecture at the recent Centre for Global Higher Education conference 2023.