What's wrong with higher education?

Sitting at a meeting where I am told that today's learners would rather sit in a café than in a library, I heard the penny drop.

Collectively speaking, we no longer have a clue what it is that we are doing in higher education. 

Some conservative commentators see it more clearly than the left-wing ones: That higher education has become an inward-looking credentialing system completing disconnected from any social or even economic utility. It has become so because most of the education, giving in to the consumer economy, is being designed as light entertainment, completely divorced from its own rhetoric.

Here is my point: A higher education is nothing if it is not uncomfortable. Aristotle made the point to an impatient Alexander: That there is no royal road to education! Change, which requires, by definition, about abandoning the comfort zones, is uncomfortable: There is no way to soft-serve this. And, yet, as we bring market logic everywhere, education must become easier - comfortable and entertaining - to make sense.

Despite my horror, the case I want to make is not a moral one. Rather, I shall appeal to the economic logic of higher education. This logic can be based on the two sides of the consumer economy: producers and consumers. The industrial era logic of education was to prepare the producers: People who could pass the 'marshmellow test', think critcally, see new opportunities and create something. Instead, at some point, perhaps at the moment of creation of the debt-fuelled world of ours (where money is created at will and rewards came to them who spend before they earn it), we switched the objective: To prepare an army of consumers! 

There was, I admit, a strict economic logic of all this. As we produce more, not just stuff but also money at will, there needed to be people who buy into our definition of good life, covet these stuff and spend their lives in misery, giving us the life of a reflected prosperity (like that caged child in Omelas). We needed more consumers, creating even more buzz, drawing the world in an endless cycle of more and more. But we are running out of steam and coming to end of that debt-orgy: We now need a higher education system fit for a producer's world yet again.

I am not the only one complaining: Hear all those employers' rant about the students lacking creative skills, critical thinking, problem solving and integrity and we know all this can be summarised into just one thing. An education for the consumers does indeed create the gadget-obsessed bubble-living narcisstic generation of workers coming out of our universities! No wonder they wouldn't question, wouldn't think, wouldn't create - all the education system has designed them for is to buy, to consume and some cases, complain! 

The need for the switch is urgent. There are more people than ever going into education. In countries such as India and China, millions of people are giving up their life-savings and precious years in search of an illusive redemption through education. So far, the individualising effect of modern education has held, and people have bought the fallacy that one can have a good life when everything around them can fall apart (in fact, precisely because everyone else does worse). But no longer: Fasicts in different countries are taking this fable a little too seriously and taking it further, pushing against the boundary walls of this Truman Show. Too many consumers and too few producers can only sustain when all boats are lifted: If anyone noticed, that stopped since the 1990s and payday is around the corner!

As we approach the challenges - recovering from the pandemic, dealing with the decoupling of US-China, rollback of democracy and return of inflation etc. - we need a new system of education. This is even more critical for countries like India, which has belatedly recognised the brokenness of its education system and rolled out a National Education Policy. This policy, like many other documents of its kind, shows that the entire billion-people country is sleepwalking into the consumer education paradigm, a vision where education is more like having coffee than visiting the dentist! It is accepting its corner of the global world - poor and powerless - as fate, revelling at the crumbs of outsourcing thrown at it and not striving to reclaim its global seat in line with the rhetoric of its government: A future very bleak indeed, as changing global configuration and automation are likely to steal even the last crumbs of prosperity that it is lasting after. 


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