The New Global Higher Education

To paraphrase Dickens, this is the best and the worst of the times for Global Higher Education.

There has never been a time of greater demand and greater desire for it. As millions join the ranks of middle classes in Asia and Africa, the West, its lifestyle, income levels and culture define the shape of the dream - and global higher education represents the pathway to it.

On the other hand, these students were never less welcome in the metropolitan centres of Europe, Australia and the United States. For all its high-minded rhetoric of borderless knowledge, the West feels overcome with migration, the modern-era exodus through the heart of Europe being its most visible manifestation. It is under an intellectual seizure, with extremist rhetoric and isolationist tendencies on the ascendance across the continent. Global education, in the form we came to know it, has never been more difficult to attain or costlier.

One crucial factor that widens this chasm is the nature of the new middle classes. In a sense, the middle has shifted. While the label of middle classes was slapped on a vast multitude of people defined by their aspiration to do better than their parents, this new class has nothing in common with the settled, economically secure middle classes of the West, who have had their political victories and left their time scraping at the bottom of the barrel behind long time ago. The new middle class falls short of even the minimum global benchmark of earning an average of $20 a day, which will make them poorer than even the poorest of the West. And, yet they are united in aspiration, even if only by Facebook memes and Twitter gossip, and Global Education, in its current incarnation, has captured their imagination.

The peculiarity of the new middle classes complicate things. They are the engine behind the expansion of Higher Education globally, but their aspirations, interests and abilities are miles apart from those of the traditional middle classes. Consequently, they also upset the neat formulation that we make about who is for and who is against the Global Higher Education. Apparently, those right-wing politicians in Europe, North America and Australia, who want to curb migration, want to create a global consumer class and a global labour market, and hence, are for Global Higher Education. And, those progressive, left-wing educators, who are for free movement of people and ideas, are often enthralled by values and commitments of the traditional Western middle classes, and would have none of the vocationalism of newcomers, or their apathy towards the cultural assumptions behind education (think of the debate about plagiarism).

This renders most of the Academic discussions about how to rise to the challenges of internationalisation out of date. The context of most of the conversation makes an unspoken assumption about the shape of the middle classes, which fall apart at the first contact with reality. The time-tested formats, student exchanges, franchising, international campuses, falter, and do not meet expectations, as they were built for a middle class that did not exist. The colonial clusters of cultural supremacy wither away, as the fancy education at metropolitan centres fail to redeem and lead to debt. 

The For-Profits of Global Education, which has grown in this vacuum, fall short in their own way. Their strategies may be perfectly aligned with vocationalism and global labour markets, but they fail to recognise that the global labour markets are clustered - the interconnected economy does not mean everyone is doing the same thing, but people are specialising on different things at different places - and the quest for scale is often fraught with disappointment. Their favoured form, Online, struggles with the variability of Internet. English and other metropolitan languages, the great enablers of scale, become barriers, as localised consumer markets often unite in the form, but not in taste.

This fragmented reality of Global Higher Education is well-acknowledged. While the talk about Glocal Education has gained traction in blogosphere, it has hardly been well-defined or translated into a coherent strategy. Except indeed for a natural hierarchy of institutions arising out of the melee, just as it did when the industrial middle classes came to Higher Education, creating the tiered system of Higher Education that see today. While a global hierarchy is now well entrenched, the picture is complicated by four different forces - automation-led redefinition of work, the global spread of consumer markets, aging of the Western workforce and increasing cultural and political self-assertion of emerging country governments. These trends, taken together, mean a loss of influence of the Western and Western-inspired traditional middle classes, increased emphasis of local production and consumption while establishing underlying global uniformity of norms and practices, reconfiguration of the defined disciplinary boundaries and critical revaluation of all culturally supremacist assumptions. Almost all this happens outside what we are calling Higher Education today, and in the end, these would reset what we mean by Higher Education. It would mean that we shall move away from the conception of Global Higher Education as the white professor on stage (or on computer screen) or the degrees from Western universities, and would arrive at a point of local/ global talent exchanges. 

This would be different from hierarchy of universities and would represent globally visible exchanges for talent. Even the top-down world of Glocal would be challenged by local platforms eclectically engaging globally, enabling and then opening up talent exchanges for global and local work. For all the international engagements, the universities have done little to create information interfaces with the varieties of talent markets, and instead concerned themselves solely with culture and preservation of privileges of a middle class. Now, this class starts to lose its ground demographically and politically to the newer middle classes, economically to intelligent machines. The new Global Higher Education models would emerge from this reality - and my contention is that it would look very different from what we have on the table as of now.


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