UNESCO study flags expansion of non-degree studies in post-secondary

We have seen a great deal of research lately as to the significant labour market or skills gaps that exist in countries around the world. These gaps persist in markets as diverse as France, India, Vietnam, and Pakistan, and are often cited as a factor in the pressing issue of youth unemployment.

The implication that rides along with such findings is that the education systems in the countries in question should expand or adapt to better align with the requirements of employers or with the economy more broadly. And now a new study from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) suggests that this is exactly what is happening.

UNESCO’s International Institute for Education Planning (IIEP) recently released a global study, The diversification of post-secondary education. The study concludes that as post-secondary systems have expanded in recent decades they have also become more diverse in terms of programmes, clientele, and institutional focus.

The study makes a distinction between tertiary education – meaning degree studies at university – and post-secondary education, which, in IIEP’s frame of reference, means every other kind of study after secondary school. IIEP says the term ‘tertiary education’ in most cases implies university education, while “post-secondary education places the focus on non-university alternatives”, and notes that, “PSE tends to value operationalised or applied knowledge, skills, and technical know-how.” IIEP adds:

“The growing demand for varied skills in the job market necessitates various different modes of delivery, a multiplicity of providers and proliferation of study programmes. Diversification of PSE can be seen as a drift towards vocational or employment-relevant courses, allowing for flexibility of study programmes.”

IIEP finds that the expansion of higher education that has occurred in many markets over the past decade and more has caused a shift from “elite” to “mass” education. More specifically, this “massification” of higher education has opened the door to greater participation by the middle classes, and, notably to women, mature students, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Students from middle-class backgrounds, who now constitute a majority, view higher education as a passport to a good job in a progressive modern sector,” says IIEP. “This changing clientele therefore conditions and reflects fresh motives for seeking higher education.”

This is itself an important observation – a “game changer” says University World News in their commentary on the study. And needless to say the implications for both domestic and international providers are profound as the field of prospective students expands to include greater participation by women, a burgeoning middle class, and more mature or mid-career students. These are important factors in driving continued enrolment growth at home and in fuelling greater outbound mobility in many markets around the world.

However, the UNESCO study points to a further aspect of diversification in post-secondary education that is equally noteworthy.

Based on a sample of five tracer studies conducted in Azerbaijan, Chile, Malaysia, Nigeria, and South Korea, IIEP finds that non-degree programming is growing more quickly than are traditional, degree-based higher education programmes.

“Although the university sector still accounts for a major share of enrolments,” concludes IIEP. “Enrolments in the non-university sector represent between a fifth and two-fifths of all students in tertiary education in many countries.” These programmes include the more technically or vocationally oriented studies of the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector, but also other non-degree programmes in areas such as technology or business administration.

“A change in the nature of skills required in the labour market called for a change in the priorities of higher education institutions,” notes the IIEP study. “The emergence of a knowledge economy further fuelled the need for varied skills such as the ability to process information, and expand and use knowledge. Economists such as James Bradford DeLong… argued that ‘IT and the Internet amplify brain power in the same way that the technologies of the industrial revolution amplified muscle power.’ Many of these skills could not be developed by the university sector.”

In his introduction to the study, N.V. Varghese, IIEP’s head of Governance and Management in Education, further sets out the context for this pattern of diversification. Professor Varghese says, “better technological capability and higher productivity are central to enhancing national competitiveness in a world characterised by knowledge-based production and competition.” He adds:

“A more receptive higher education system that can respond to changing skill requirements in the production sectors is a necessary condition for promoting economic growth. Recent reforms in higher education have sought to reposition it so that it is relevant to changing trends in development and production. This has implied moving away from traditional forms of programme delivery and content.”

A growing interest in non-degree programmes on the part of employers and policymakers can be expected to fuel further expansion in this area. As with the broader field of prospective students noted above, the implications of an expanded base of programming in post-secondary are profound for providers and recruiters alike.

The persistent labour market challenges facing many world markets today are not going to go away overnight, and real progress will no doubt require the combined efforts of local and international governments, institutions, and employers. The scale and importance of these issues suggests new opportunities for foreign providers to partner with local governments and institutions to build local capacity or to deliver programmes in-country.

Similarly, the trends identified in the IIEP study may foreshadow new opportunities for expanded recruitment to non-degree programmes in the VET sector and otherwise. This in turn may require new recruiting strategies for some providers, and also may reinforce the growing importance of VET and other non-degree programmes for immigration officials and policymakers in host countries.



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