Reflections on the Transition from Elite to Mass to Universal Access in Modern Societies since WWII

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Citation: Martin Trow (2005) Reflections on the Transition from Elite to Mass to Universal Access in Modern Societies since WWII. International Handbook of Higher Education (RSS)
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University enrolment had been stable at 3-5% from 1900 to the WWII, when suddenly it began to rise rapidly.

Three Stages of University Massification

Trow discusses three stages of university massification:

  1. elite—shaping the mind and character of a ruling class, a preparation for elite roles (0-15%)
  2. mass—transmission of skills and preparation for a broader range of technical and economic elite roles (16-50%?)
  3. universal—adaptation of the “whole population” to rapid social and technological change (50%+)

These stages were first introduced in Trow 1973, and are not presented as “empirical descriptions of real higher education systems”, but rather as models or ideal types. They can be seen as sequential stages, but it is not inevitable that later stages will completely replace earlier ones, in fact “there are definite possibilities of examples of elite forms surviving in the mass and universal stages”.

Measuring Growth in Higher Education Attendance

There are different ways of measuring growth:

  1. Rate of growth - proportion of young academics, difficulty of socializing students and professors into the community
  2. Absolute size – both of system and of universities. The growth can happen in two very different processes: growth of traditional universities, and transformation of elite universities into systems of mass higher education.
  3. Proportion of relevant age group – which is relevant to how being a student is perceived, and also for labor market.

Students’ perception of education

Trow argues that in an elite system, education is seen as a privilege of the few to join an exclusive club, whereas with mass higher education, it is seen as a right among many classes of society. With universal higher education, many groups begin to see it as an obligation to attend, non-attendance is perceived as a weakness or a problem, which also impacts hiring practices. This has important ramifications for student motivations.

How did expansion happen?

In Britain and Europe, elite institutions expanded, but it was difficult to do that past 15% of the eligible population. New institutions had to be created, which differed in many respects. The UK and most of Europe is committed to a unitary equitable system, where everyone receives high quality education, but are not willing to levy tuition fees sufficient to fund this, or encourage private institutions. The tax structures also do not favor the kind of endowments and giving that we have seen in the US. Although the UK initially set up a binary system, the high prestige of the research university model, and the valuing of equity led to institutions converging.

Trow claims that European institutions, through the Bologna process, are “Americanizing”, simply because the American model is better suited to modern demands, and that the American structure has been in place since the Morill Act (1890), whereas European model is still evolving. However, Bologna is all about getting people out quicker, and does not have much pedagogical foundation.