Local politicians want to revive growth in their regions and attract young people to live there. The unions hope that requiring more education will raise the prestige and wages of their members. For higher education management, more students mean more funding and more services for teachers and administrators. The principals get to oversee larger parishes.
For students, the picture is more complex. The more that are taken in and examined, the greater is the supply and thus the restraining pressure on wages. The extension of the period of education means that you borrow money for a longer period and earn money for a shorter one, which impacts the already meagre living-wage calculations.
On the other hand, the economy is not everything in this world. More study can mean wider horizons and deeper understanding. Moreover, the overall growth dynamic is enhanced when combined knowledge grows.
Although this assumes that one can equate more man-years of college with increased public knowledge, and this seems far from clear. The relationship is, in any case, not linear.
Firstly, we see how university is now being affected by schools’ shortcomings. At the beginning of the year, a group of historians sounded the alarm about the poor language skills of students, and the picture has been confirmed in several follow-up reports. Such opinions vary a lot when you ask around at universities, says Language Magazine (August 2013): "But on one point they are extremely consistent: students' ability to absorb long texts has significantly deteriorated. Everyone is saying this, from the most troubled analysts, to those that characterise the debate as 'alarmist'".
In the same article, Linkoping professor, Caroline Liberg, points out that these students belong to vintages that still fared quite well by international comparison. Nowadays, it is worse. "I'm worried about how it will go with the groups that come to university in five or ten years."
Secondly, universities are contending with a grants system, which is designed to put virtue to the test. The more students that are approved and make the grade, the more money the university gets from the state. This could work well if someone else oversaw the examinations, but when one is responsible oneself, it requires an unreasonably high degree of integrity to not start compromising quality.
Thirdly, it is in the nature of expansion that quality is pressurised. In theory, it might be possible to maintain the same level of education when 50 percent of a cohort studies at college as when it was only 10 to 20 percent, but in practice this is not so. Teachers cannot take the same time for everyone, the knowledge gap is growing and, while resources are increasing, it is not enough for the sort of education that is universities’ classic raison d'être.
The state orders much more than it is willing to pay for. When enthusiastic education politicians say it is amazing that so many are now offered what was previously reserved for the few, it is not really true. Certainly there are many more who receive, but what they get is often something quite different.
Given the high hopes attached to universities, the amount of resources they consume, and how important they are for the degree of education, enlightenment and civilisation in a society, it is high time that we had a livelier and more mature discussion about universities’ future. Merely counting places is insufficient.
Axess intends to play its part into the future and, in this issue, this is done through a themed section on the phenomenon of MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), namely the rapidly increasing range of quality courses online.
In Sweden, distance learning has had a rather tarnished reputation, but there will be a somewhat different tune when the big elephants from Princeton, Stanford and MIT enter the fray. It creates anxiety for Swedish colleges about desertion and the devaluation of Swedish exams: why should students attend classes in Halmstad, Orebro or Skovde when they can sit at home and listen to stars from Harvard? With this come the hopes about the possibilities of technology and interactivity and the idea that you can get the state's scarce cake to stretch further.
Probably MOOC will make a faster impact in the U.S. than in Sweden, as U.S. students pay for their education and the costs are spiralling. However, Swedish universities would be wise to think ahead so that they can do something constructive with what is coming.
The ideal is a university that sees the individual and provides personalised guidance for knowledge and growth. It is optimistic to think that MOOC alone can realise that. On the other hand, mass university has already made this ideal history. Both width and depth are required, and the way forward lies in diversity and differentiation.