College in Developing Countries: Sleepwalking To A Crisis

At some point in 2006, the nature of the Higher Education changed. Many developing countries, led by China and India, embraced the idea that a college educated population is the key to escape poverty and develop the country. So began a great experiment - of opening new institutions, mainly by granting approvals to private entrepreneurs to do so. In doing so, China more or less doubled its college-going population; India's numbers, less spectacular, still grew rapidly between 2006 and 2014, with 10 new colleges, on average, being opened a day. And, this was not just China and India: Many African and Middle Eastern countries had done the same, following similar strategies - granting approval to private entrepreneurs - and ushering in an all-new 'mass Higher Education', the likes of which we have not known before.

This phenomenon is now entering a mature phase, and we should be able to analyse what happened. The growth, both of college population and growth of jobs in Higher Education, changed the sector and the Labour Market. 

Much of this growth was in Technical and Business degrees, which meant that non-degree training provisions in those areas - a growth area for commercial training in the developing countries - were largely subsumed in the Higher Education sector. Not only students would not pursue non-degree provisions any more, those who would have worked in commercial training sector earlier, would now work in Higher Education. Indeed, the rapid spread of institutions was not accompanied by any matching growth in qualified teachers and researchers, leading to a change in who taught in colleges and how they taught. The expansion of Higher Education didn't mean the training businesses becoming universities, one observer pointed out to me, but rather universities becoming training centres. Noticeably, the new Higher Education accompanied a deliberate portrayal of university teaching as quaint and out of touch, and a new demand for 'facilitators', those who will guide students rather than teaching them. However high-minded, one would suspect this to be a response to the Academic Labour market - there are no qualified university tutors to be found in any case! 

This transformation also meant a change in Labour Market for the graduates: As the newly minted graduates flooded the market, Say's Law took hold and the supply created its own demand - those jobs which did not need graduate degrees now needed graduate degrees. The wages for people without college degrees plummeted - they were pushed out of the organised sector employment to unorganised sectors and self-employment. Indeed, these new jobs requiring college degrees meant that graduates are now doing various low-paying jobs - those which do not need a degree to perform - but this is not the kind of data which sponsoring countries effectively tracked.

But this process has come to a screeching halt as job markets spluttered. The effects of Great Recession took time to be felt, as it worked its way through economic and political systems, altering visa regimes, changing ideas about outsourcing, altering priorities of technology development and deployment and finally, altering the political balance. By 2014, the effect of technologies on jobs were clear, as new jobs were not being created at the same rate as the old jobs were being replaced technology. The Indian dream, which, like the American dream, involves doing better than one's parents but unlike it, involves a stint abroad, was no longer entirely feasible, as the visa regimes in the OECD countries changed rapidly. Finally, from 2016, a new political agenda starts to emerge in these countries, with a new set of leaders, whose mandates were based on revival of manufacturing, return of jobs and control of immigration.
This means that Globalisation, still the central phenomenon around which developing country college education is organised, is over, or, has now assumed an unrecognisable form. The universities in Developing Countries, slow-changing institutions as they are, are indeed completely oblivious of this change. They are indeed making obligatory noises about automation, but that in the sense of this being an exotic, science-fiction, sort of thing, rather than something of an existential threat. There are Conferences organised and papers read, surely: But these ideas are yet to appear in the strategic conversations in the new universities. And, indeed, the transformation of global labour markets is not merely a technological phenomena: It is a political one and recognising the politics of it requires questioning the political basis of the new education system - closely tied to a certain vision of economic growth and social development - which the overtly technical university systems are incapable of doing.

So far, the colleges in the developing countries sleepwalked through the crisis, but this may change in 2018. The structure of the system, process-based and overtly technical, is not fit-for-purpose anymore. In fact, they are solely designed to produce workers for existing technological environments - not a good thing when the technological environments are changing: The graduates coming out of colleges in developing countries are often passive 'hands', who have no say in how technologies would be shaped and businesses will evolve. This, in turn, means that their frustrations are turned inward: Unable to adapt, feeling cheated of the opportunity, relegated to hopelessness, and incapable to understand the reasons of change, they are being driven towards an anti-democratic politics in the hope of redemption.



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