65/100: Higher and Lower Education

I have been keenly promoting apprenticeships as a part of our business plan for the new Business School in East London and this opened up a debate with some of my colleagues. In fact, two different debates at once: The first one was about making apprenticeships the focus of the business, at least in the short run; the other one was about staying out of it, as we are focusing on Higher Education.

This debate isn't new. Those who do apprenticeships know that there is money in it; particularly the government is very keen to promote them and therefore, there is significant budgetary allocation towards the same. Higher Education in the private sector is still a no-no in Britain, and while you are making a space, it makes abundant sense to play in an arena where public funding is available.

While this is business-speak, and I also additionally floated the view that while the HE enrollment money is front-loaded, apprentice money is mostly backloaded, hence a combination is desirable, these are two different kinds of business. And, I subscribe to the view that vocationalization of higher education is one of the biggest questions in education at this time. In fact, I see them as two separate boxes, and believe that they should be kept that way.

This is not a popular view, by any means. It smacks of elitism, and one must remember that the democratization of higher education has been achieved after a long struggle and gains are still so fragile. But what I say is not elitist: I do not believe that people should be excluded from a certain kind of education because of who they are. However, I am not sure what goes on today is any more egalitarian than what we had before. In my mind, what happened in the name of 'access' is creation of two-tier, no, multi-tier education system, where same labels were applied across the board but it meant different things if obtained from different institutions. I think this system is more elitist - and I see the fact that only 200 odd students from state schools made it to Oxbridge last year as evidence to that view - than before.

To me, higher education is not a 'better' form of education, but it is different. I think we apply wrong labels throughout. For example, the name 'higher education' smacks of the elitism, rank-consciousness irreversibly. Similarly, 'vocational' education is not a different beast: We on one hand claim all education is vocational (or should be) and on the other, try to ghetto some of the provisions under it. And, 'further education' is after what?

The problem also is that after all this labeling, we keep mixing things up. Higher Education is meant to be primarily for a job, vocational education shouldn't just prepare pupils for a job but a career, further education is supposed to help lifelong learning, for job changes perhaps. While the access to education should be democratic, all education was never meant to be the same: Yet, we have got it exactly on the reverse.

One of my teachers called the abolition of polytechnics in 1992, abolition of the universities. He is right: This meant absolving the purpose of higher education. Higher Education is meant to equip its recipient a sentient existence, where life's engagements are critically explored; Higher Education was meant to make us better persons, consciously employed in questioning 'conventional wisdom' and making lives better. Reducing it to technical teaching and pursuit of employability - by definition, accepting one's station in life and pursuing a steady state - is as far a purpose from the uplifting experience that Higher Education promised in another age. Cynics, of course, saw Higher Education as the building of a privileged brotherhood - notwithstanding the idealistic statements I just made - which shared codes and languages to create a 'ruling' class. I shall argue today's format of Higher Education is exactly that - where the promises of being part of the ruling class is handed out to Middle Classes in the form of degrees, which meant nothing as the power decamped from the campuses, and have gone into exclusive clubs that dominate the campus life.

So, we have landed up with Higher and Lower education more than ever before. We have more or less forgotten that any education must enhance the recipient - engage him more consciously with the world around him - and that way, enhance the world. Our boxes, and claims made around them, obscured the greater purpose. To me, in that way, the two kinds of education we should offer should be united in purpose - making its recipient a conscious participant in the society - but use two different methods perhaps.

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