Educational access and massification
Broad access to education is vital for regional inversion. Access to higher education is particularly important, since it will determine the quality and quantity of the talent platform available for activities that contribute to regional inversion.
A major challenge for higher education is providing broad access while sustaining or improving quality. Quality and access are often perceived as contradictory to one another, however. The expansion of access to higher education has often resulted in the collapse of quality and merit standards. Such outcomes cause severe damage to a region’s human resources and shortchange its possibilities for social and economic advancement.
Expanding access and improving quality in higher education are not mutually contradictory. Both are vital for the process of regional inversion. However, it is important to understand the kinds of factors that can promote both access and quality to sustain regional inversion.
How can educational access and quality be expanded to support regional inversion?
Several factors promote the expansion of educational access and quality in support of regional inversion.
Most of the factors that lead to the promotion of access and quality are organizational in character. Resource-related factors are also very important, since organization alone will never be enough to overcome the talent deficits of lagging regions.
A very important organizational factor is the creation of a tier system of higher education, with different levels of selectivity. This tier system necessarily involves a division of functions in higher education. Clearly defining the functions of each tier and avoiding significant overlaps is vital for this system to work effectively.
One of the tiers in the system of higher education must provide open access. Training, practical skills, remedial and basic university-level education can be the main functions of this tier. This level must, however, allow the possibility of advancing to the more selective tiers of the system.
The open tier can, for example, provide the first opportunity of higher education to many individuals who would otherwise not have it. Those who, because of social, economic or other factors were in the past prevented from achieving a university education might therefore have a chance to achieve it. The possibility of advancing or transferring to the more selective tiers of the system can be an important incentive for achievement. At the very least, however, this tier can provide training and practical skills needed by many activities that support regional inversion.
The open tier may also incorporate Internet-based distance learning programs. The latter may, in many respects, be the new frontier of educational massification. Reaching individuals and groups who might otherwise not have a chance to enroll full-time in university-level programs can be an objective of this component. Similarly, allowing an opportunity for higher education to “late bloomers” or those with substantial work or household responsibilities can help expand the process of massification.
A second tier can have higher selectivity than the previous one. This tier’s function may be to provide access to full university-level education, in general and in some selected professional fields, and to masters-level graduate degrees in some disciplines. This level can also accommodate many transfers from the open tier described previously. The physical infrastructure of this tier may have to be more concentrated than in the open tier, with fewer campuses but more advanced facilities.
A third and highly selective level may then be functionally oriented toward state-of-the-art graduate education, and to post-graduate research in both general and professional fields. Provision of doctoral diplomas may, for example, be the distinctive characteristic of this tier. Masters and college-level diplomas may also be provided, but with greater selectivity of access than in the previous tier.
It is very important for the highly selective tier to provide state-of-the-art education and research in technology and science fields. Advanced facilities that can allow education and research at the highest possible level of quality must be part of this tier. This level must provide the platform of advanced knowledge and creativity from which new activities, industries and sectors can be launched in the region.
A second factor involves the provision of resources and organization to allow the various levels of the tier system to fit together. Ways must be provided, for example, to allow advancement or transfer from the open tier to the intermediate and top tiers, and from the intermediate to the top one, for anyone who meets specified performance criteria.
Defining the division of functions between the various tiers is vital if they are to fit together. Differences in selectivity of access between tiers must be clearly established. The duplication of functions must also be avoided. This means that each tier must have its own specific niche within the system. Neither the open nor the intermediate tiers should, for example, be as selective as the top tier. State-of-the-art research and doctoral diplomas should be part of the function of one tier but not of the others. Confusing or scrambling the division of functions between tiers can collapse the standards of quality that support regional inversion.
Third, the system must allow flexibility and autonomy to institutions within each tier. This is not incompatible with the division of functions between tiers. Every campus or institution in each tier must have the flexibility to look for resources and tailor its specific structure to regional and community needs, while adhering to the objectives of its tier.
This means that, for example, a campus in the open tier must be able to offer the kinds of programs that are suited to the local area it serves. Other campuses in the same open tier might then offer different programs based on local needs. Diversity within each tier must be tolerated or even encouraged, so long as the objectives of the tier are observed. Thus, for example, none of the institutions in the open tier would offer doctoral programs, since doing so would be outside the purpose of their tier.
Fourth, successful institutions or campuses in any of the tiers must not be penalized, by having their funding or resources reduced. This may lead to some disparities between institutions within each tier. However, taking away resources from the more successful institutions can provide a disincentive to strive for quality and external funding, even though substantial disparities within each tier may be undesirable. The less successful institutions within each tier should instead be encouraged to seek resources and the organizational mechanisms that can improve their situation.
A fifth factor is the promotion of institutional values that motivate or reward experimentation, risk-taking, imagination, independent thinking and novelty. Such values must be incorporated in the reward system of each tier. Their effective deployment may lead to greater creativity, in a collective sense, that can become internalized in many activities that support regional inversion.
This means that learning must not be circumscribed to established ideas or knowledge. Intellectual forays into new areas must be encouraged, to the extent that they foster creativity and provide new knowledge. At the same time, experimentation must be accompanied by a tolerance of failure that can help build endurance to adversity. These values are central to the creation of the new activities, sectors and industries that underpin regional inversion.
A sixth factor is the provision of financial resources and physical infrastructure to expand access and improve quality in each of the tiers. Without substantial investment over time, the organizational factors discussed previously will not be able to overcome the talent deficit of a lagging region. No matter how effective and well conceived, organizational mechanisms will never be enough if the financial resources and physical infrastructure are not provided to support expansion and quality.
Physical educational infrastructure is of particularly importance, since facilities are a major attraction of talent. State-of-the-art laboratories and research facilities are vital to prepare those who will contribute to a region’s pool of technological, economic and social creativity. The financial resources to support faculty compensation are also fundamental. They are a major incentive to prevent the out-migration of faculty and researchers. They are vital for attracting the in-migration of faculty and researchers, since in most cases highly qualified individuals will have to be recruited from other regions and nations. Without such recruitment, it may be difficult to build up the educational system to a point where a region’s talent deficit can be overcome.
For publications on regional inversion and related topics by this author,
please see the Publications section of this website.
Copyright © Luis Suarez-Villa