The future of college is a popular conference topic. The discussion usually starts with the obvious - that the college must change as the economy is changing - and revolves around a familiar complaint - that the state-funded colleges are too bureaucratic, too expensive and too slow to adapt to changing realities. And, in the end, comes the panacea, privatisation, and not too subtle discussions about global higher education as a multi-billion dollar business opportunity.
The problem with this narrative is that, first, private college education isn't that new - it is very much part of the problem rather than the solution - and, second, the pursuit of global college has so far been a graveyard of good intentions. Too many people, enthused by the conference speeches and reading the pumped up projections global consultancies churn out, have tried to create the culture-free non-regulated college-in-the-air, only to be rudely disappointed as the student millions fail to materialise. Those failures only highlighted the first point, that private for-profit colleges are very much part of the problem: Their track record doesn't show that they have done anything new or innovative, or solved the access or cost problems; rather, for-profits have driven up the cost, failed to deliver the outcome, indulged in misleading sales and often cheated outright. Now that the model has come crumbling down in America (or may be not, as one of those For-profit college owners now run the country), there is an all-out effort to export that failed model everywhere else.
But, it doesn't work. Why would an Indian, Chinese or African student prefer an American or English virtual college, paying a premium for a degree that won't be recognised by local employers? For-profit college owners, even in their start-up avatars, usually took slick advertising as the answer, but even that doesn't work. College, when it's self-funded, is more than like buying a car: It is a way to connect to the community, the process of becoming oneself. Sitting in front of a computer in a room with granny is hardly the idea of college that will appeal to all those teenagers looking for freedom and friendship. Also, the dematerialised college doesn't offer all the other things that one expects college to do - build connections, provides confidence, grounding in culture - and therefore, falls short. Besides, the patronising conference speakers' formula that the online college expands access isn't true; at Western price points, they are a luxury few could afford.
So, here is an alternative vision: The future of the college isn't virtual, but local. If we have to solve the problems of access, as well as of relevance, and provide college-level education for the millions in Asia and Africa, that can only be done through grassroots colleges. These local colleges would use the virtual, of all the repository of content that is being built online, but they wouldn't be built top-down on profit-seeking models. The reason they don't exist today is precisely what the global college disruptors most complain about: Regulation! For most developing country government, college is a place, a space where knowledge is officially controlled and certified: For them, the local college model is as reprehensible as the global virtual one.
But this will change. As technologies change work and lives, new formats of engagement and education are bound to come up. The learners everywhere would seek the means of livelihood and the meaning of life through education, just as it happened during the industrial revolution. Knowledge would defy its official straight-jacket and enable shapeshifting education, anywhere, in a local coffee shop. The future of the college, in my mind, is in the coffee-house.
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