The Point of Higher Education

Higher Education is in crisis, it was proclaimed. MOOCs and various other avatars, depending on who you ask, either cause the crisis or present a solution. The government is in full retreat, after making access to Higher Education central to democratic legitimacy, and indeed, various interest groups are up in arms. Central to this debate, various debates as we should see it, is the question what Higher Education is for: It is on this question, rather than any other, where the battle lines are drawn most clearly.

Like any other public policy debates, there are lots of rhetoric and lots of fudge on this: Terms such as 'Opportunity Society' has won votes and lost meaning many times over. The scarecrow of loss of competitiveness (to South Korea, mostly, these days) and the teardrops shed on 'lost soul of Higher Education' compete for influence and column-inch. But all these various shades of grey can eventually be put in two boxes - the 'Power' argument and the 'Productivity' argument.

The 'Power' argument, first: The proponents of this talk about making of a better person through Higher Education, someone who can critically analyse what's around him or her, shape the world rather than be shaped. The point of Higher Education, in this view, is to create an empowered class of individuals, who lead and shape the destiny of others. In this view, higher education is, at its core, the pursuit of freedom, which must be free by design itself. However, at the bottom of this argument, there is this assumption that the educated must be allowed to lead: The great hallo of intellectual freedom, in essence, is freedom for few thus initiated.

The 'Prosperity' argument, in contrast, is about money and productivity. Higher Education, in this view, is a tool that equip its holder the ability to produce, directly or indirectly, economic value. In a way, this is the open doors argument, the 'opportunity society' view, which allows all-comers to have a chance. This side of the argument, however, accepts the power argument implicitly, and accepts that freedom and self-consciousness isn't for everyone. The proponents of higher education for prosperity is happy to let the Power Higher Ed live on, just that they want a share of pedestal and dish out similar diplomas. 

The 'Power' side of the argument, however, resents the 'Prosperity' proponents as terrible pretenders. Despite the latter's inherent acceptance of an unequal world, indeed many prosperity proponents themselves are recipients of power higher ed themselves, the former sees this as a terrible land grab. For them, 'Higher' in Higher Ed is not just about the number of years on a education leaflet printed in some ministry, but this 'higher' is higher as in Mount Everest, shrouded in mystery, beyond the reach of the charlatans and the commoners: For them, Higher Education for Prosperity is as revolting as opening Shangri-la for honeymoon packages.

Unfortunately, despite claims on the contrary, there is no 'Freedom' school of thought in Higher Education. That argument has been usurped: Freedom in Higher Education is either freedom for few to do the high thinking, or the freedom to consume for all, leaving the high thinking to few. The politicians, mostly educated on power schools and themselves seasoned players of the power game, sold the prosperity snake oil and the guise of freedom: Freedom to consume as opposed to freedom to think, indeed.

Depending on which side won the argument, we have the two typologies of Higher Education system dominating the landscape. The prosperity argument seems to reign supreme in United States, while the power side has been entrenched in the UK; the countries which model themselves after these two globally dominant models have created systems along the lines - India a 'power' dominated system, South-East Asia and China a prosperity driven one.

Indeed, higher education debate is a many-headed hydra - so it is useful to be able to start somewhere. I have found this typology, of power and of prosperity, useful as a start point, as it helps to sort through the rhetoric and the slogans, and the various pseudo-models that are spun out from time to time.


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