“Genius requires privilege and opportunity.” Apt words from John Richetti. Of all our social inequalities, education is at the fore. Education is vital yet expensive, prohibitively so, and the further you progress, the more expensive it becomes. A senior academic once raised their eyebrows in surprise when I told them in conversation that I had completed all of my third-level studies at local institutions here in Cork. Why had I not set my sights on more prestigious arenas? It was partly owing to a lack of intelligence, but it was primarily down to a lack of cash. I studied somewhere close to home, or I didn’t study at all. Of course, there are people in far worse positions – I appreciate that I’ve been lucky – people who’d give anything to study anything, anywhere. As Richetti said, it’s about privilege and opportunity.
Breaking down the barriers to education will only be partly achieved through grants and schemes. Funding the education of low-income individuals only provides for a very small percentage of those who can’t afford the education that they desire. Statistics don’t reflect the large portion of the teenage and young adult populations whose parents can afford to send them to college, but won’t pay for them to do so. For these people, grants are of little use. Back to education and mature student schemes are again only catering to the few. There are a lot of criteria to be met, significantly shrinking the number of people that such initiatives can support.
The great barriers to education are financial and geographical. The financial side is self-explanatory: if you have enough money, you can study whatever you’d like, wherever you see fit. This is a luxury enjoyed by few. Geographical restrictions are plain to see in Ireland. 26 counties, only five with universities. This is, of course, more than enough to meet the requirements of our population, but if you have a job, or any other such professional or personal commitments, relocation might not be an option. It is very unfair to restrict further education to individuals who have both the time and financial resources to relocate and study full-time. Very few people can leave professional employment in an effort to continue their learning. Many part-time options are also location dependent.
The solution? Smarter logistics – fulfil the potential offered by distance and Web-based learning. Most people need jobs, not everyone can relocate. Few people are fortunate enough to have the finances or third-party support required to build up an arsenal of academic qualifications. If highly-ranked and respected institutions from across the globe offered Web-based programmes, then we’d soon see the barriers to education eroded. In addition, such institutions would be rewarded with an entirely new stream of income upon which to develop their existing offerings.
The technology is ready. It is waiting to be used. Furthermore, a significant number of third-level programmes are suited to this mode of delivery. Most taught postgraduate programmes are built on reading and discussion. Which technologies support reading and discussion? Take your pick. Consider, for example, your typical postgraduate programme in the humanities. On average you are faced with how many contact hours per week – six? The rest is reading and writing. Surely, six hours of direct contact can be facilitated via Web-based technologies?
Providing free course content via the Web seems to be popular at present, but in a world where people are measured primarily upon tangible accomplishments, education providers need to stop focusing on providing YouTube videos on philosophy, and rather, switch their focus to providing learning that can be formally accredited.
Some institutions are leading the way, the University of London for example, or closer to home, Dublin City University. Everywhere you turn, you will find champions of this cause, but very few institutions are actually practising what they preach. Most unfortunately, only talk about the tearing down the ivory tower. But we needn’t tear it down, just make it accessible to the forgotten many in the middle.