Higher Ed and Digital Economy: 1

Higher ed needs a refresh. 

One may love how it once was, but we live in a different world. Enlightenment university may be described in glowing terms, but this belonged to a world in which millions of people were sold into slavery every year and Colonial masters imposed their rule on much of the non-European world. A return to that pristine ideal as an escape from our broken times is no less indulgent nostalgia than Brexit, the collective calamity that Britain's closet colonialists imposed on the country.

In this brave new world world where the Indian, the Chinese and the African dreams have to be taken account, when democracy demands a fair opportunity to be offered to even the non-posh citizens, and when new technologies of production and of communication make obsolete the twin realities of big factories and unionised labour, higher education needs a model other than nostalgia. And, it may be, like the world of today, different from the stable, rear-mirror-fixatated, perpetually-being-reorganised, seeking-order-in-chaos environment of the universities; rather, it should be the entrepreneurial, perpetually-on-the-edge, seeking-chaos-in-order, in motion for creation model that the digital economy brings.

But before we get too excited, it's worth repeating - one can get too excited about digital. It's best to start by accepting that the impact of digital economy is uneven,  and also as often, different for different people. Also, another caveat: It does less than is claimed, as the Silicon Valley loves to fake it before they can make it. Many of the bold claims are fluff or fraud, and promises of disruption are really old-style salesmanship. And, yet, digital economy is here. It's not just about $25,000 robots folding one piece of garment at a time (and not being able to handle socks) or the tentative moves to self-driving cars which may require complete redesign of our cities; it is rather about more mundane and real stuff like the pieces of software that decimated the solid middle class profession of book-keeping and coming in the way of legal clerks, or basic automation that would make millions of call centre workers in India redundant soon. Modern university's attempt to save itself from industrial decimation meant tying its fate with global service industry, only to share its troubles as globalization goes in reverse gear.

The case for this rethinking is immediate. It's often fashionable to shrug and state in posh accent that change will always have its winners and losers (which only means that posh accent always wins) but when universities get it wrong, they ruin lives intentionally. They miss the point by deliberately missing the point: They organise elaborate conferences the threats to universities but never once to self-reflect on what their dated practices, their narcissistic attachment to rankings (the only innovation the university sector fully embraced) and their constant craving for privileges do to their students. And, of course, in the meantime, policy-makers everywhere has gone crazy.  Politicians sold access to university as a guarantee of a good life, something that they failed to deliver otherwise. They goaded people to go to universities, backing them with unaffordable loans or by expanding the sector massively by licensing unsustainable colleges. That in today's India, educational attainment is inversely coorelated with likelihood of being employed is symptomatic of this massive global breakdown.

This is also a case of the cure being worse than the disease. The solution in the form of markets - the panacea that, in contemporary imagination, should revitalise all institutions - meant that universities have become more tied to existing practices. Consider rankings and all sorts of new measurements, for example: These narrowed the space for change and innovation and positioned doing more of the same stuff as innovation. As innovative companies like Google or Facebook try their best to become like university campuses, the newly embraced market discipline meant the universities become more like factories. The performance culture bred discord and distrust; the magic potion of competition undermined the free exchange that was the most redeeming part of the university culture; the money culture meant that the VCs awarded themselves massive salaries and directed the cuts at staff commonrooms. Instead of arriving at the digital economy, the universities were sent straight back to the purgatory of early twentieth century factories.

The private competition, which was variably unleashed in different countries, made things worse. If innovation was the intention, private players did not go anywhere near it. Rather, they sought out the rent inherent in the monopolistic structure of the sector. They created faux-tradition and doubled down on industrial culture. Their innovative energies were mostly directed at sales, designing ever better mousetraps, making even more subtle false promises, accentuating the disconnection of higher ed even more with the rapidly changing economy. And, even in its new, disruptive online avatar, private education became all about stripping the university experience to the bare minimum (to garner efficiency) and finding the easiest path to a degree. The digital economy demanded a paradigm change: In the perversion of private education, this was deemed to be all style and no substance, which it was not.

This, in many ways, is a penny-dropping moment. The politicians' promise of higher education for everyone has produced little but public indebtedness; the narcissistic universities are suddenly staring at rippling waters. The private education industry, after failing in America, lived a little more on the back of Indian and Chinese aspiration, and lately taking flight to Africa, but its funding is trying up and valuations are looking exposed. Its digital-only avatar is still a character in search of an author, an empty vassal of rhetorical excess and lightweight in delivery. Digital economy has disrupted both private and public education, and laid bare the lack of imagination even of the education start-ups.



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