Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp for $19 Billion has set off an unlikely debate: With 55 employees of WhatsApp getting very rich, the jobs versus growth debate has been rekindled again. Just like the Instagram deal, where the company was sold for $1 billion but had just 13 employees (in comparison with industrial era Kodak, which employed upwards of 250,000 at its peak), this is another reminder that we are into a different economy where output and jobs are completely de-linked. And, it is not just about a few people getting a lot more and a lot of people getting a lot less, it is about some people in some professions getting everything.
This creates a completely different set of problems than we faced before. It is not just about social unrest that may follow, and even the lack of demand that many Western economies are struggling with and Bob Reich is warning against (see his take on the WhatsApp deal), but even more fundamentally, it is about disappearance of hope for most people. Big winnings may warm hearts for the moment, but as the economy goes virtual, there may be professions abandoned and people losing not their jobs but optimism. The spectre that hunts us now is not one of revolution as Marx would have seen centuries ago, but one of disengagement and disenfranchisement - and, this, I shall argue, is the biggest problem for Higher Education.
My current obsession is to study how Higher Education is coping with the changes in jobs and careers, and from what I see, it is not coping very well. Its response to the rapidly changing job market has been ambivalent at best, and mostly defensive - with a spirit of denouement of this worldwide shift in the shape and scope of work. But this political point may not completely absolve it from its own responsibility - more so as Higher Education sector has heaped upon itself the epithet of the driver of the knowledge economy - and, in fact, Higher Ed may yet find itself at the eye of this coming storm.
This is because it is hope that sustains Higher Education and loss of hope and opportunity will make the sector redundant. The High Achievers, the heroes of the information revolution, the geniuses, need Higher Education less and less to be merely successful: If you have the smarts, the tools of the riches are all available to you. We may not need a Higher Education sector to push forward the information revolution - and certainly don't need it in its current size and scope. And, with information revolution undermining several 'professions', the professional society Higher Education helped to build, and in turn, got benefited from, its continuing survival looks extremely shaky unless it manages to change itself and help create the new 'professionals'.
I use the term 'Professionals' but by definition, these new class of people may be quite different from their predecessors. They may no longer have a guaranteed social contract for the monopoly over their trade - after all, information revolution unleashes a 'cult of the amateur' - against the commitment to serve professionally and ethically and well. Rather, these new 'professionals' will be those who would keep pushing the boundaries of thought and practice all the time - something that old professionals, keepers of their respective orders, did only sparingly - and in more sense than one, will be the vanguards of entrepreneuralism and new thinking in the society.
Indeed, this is not what Higher Education does. Despite the efforts of a few educators, the institutional culture of Higher Education is deeply antagonistic to such creative anarchy. Most Higher Education institutions I study are either too deeply entrenched in their state-mandated role to maintain the social order, despite the realisation that this is a losing game, or in a desperate game to be business-like, emulating the same industrial-era principles of order and linearity which are challenged in their own domain. Walking through the corridors of Higher Education institutions and listening to the leaders of Higher Education, one usually gets the sinking feeling of experiencing denial first-hand.
For all the talk of a 'Creative Education', by definition, this remains limited to disciplines that are labelled as 'creative'. Despite the fact that creativity may become central to Higher Education proposition in the changed economic reality, the game of labels that educators are so used to playing are so hard to overcome. It is hard for educators, it seems, to accept creativity as a value rather than a skill, to be indulged upon in the context of certain kinds of work. However, without it, Higher Education will be sleepwalking into oblivion.
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