In search of change in higher ed

I often ask myself this question: Why is it that when the world's best corporations are trying to set up 'campuses', many universities and colleges are so intent on running 'factories'?

I know the obvious answer that the creativity and freedom are supposed to be for the gifted. Most of humanity are not creative, not aspirational and they crave for structure and command. I also know that this answer is wrong.

Of course, we have met 'uncreative' people; many of them, possibly. People who would just follow, rather than finding a path. But should we stop to think that it is in their genes to not to be creative, an assumption we implicitly seem to be making, and allow the thought that they might have been encouraged not to think? 

Is it that we are mixing up the cause and the effect - our education 'factories' are making people stupid, rather than the other way around?

Of course, this is not about social classes, as the toffs would say: "Too many people are coming to higher education and therefore, we must dumb it down!" It is rather the opposite. It's not about the first generation kids going to college need these education factories, it is the middle class children who are socially pressured to go to college but are consumed by the 'happiness hypothesis' - that the goal of human life is to be happy! They don't want to indulge in purpose thinking, that we are meant to do something, contribute, make the world better. The markets follow them, the governments serve them and the media faithfully reproduces their preferences in the form of detailed statistical make-believe: It is they who demand the factories - the Chocolate factories of Willy Wonka if you see where this story is going!

But if we want to leave people as they are, why bother with all the extra years of effort and experience?

This is an ever more urgent question now that our world is changing. 21st century is already a cliché, but we have a distinct feeling of history accelarating its pace lately. But away from the headlines, fundamental shifts are on the way. Demographic shift, the decades of growth in labour supply, is now apparent. globalisation has led to a convergence of aspirations of rich people across borders but a greater divergence between the rich and the poor within them. Inflation is back after being wiped out of the collective memory in the West. Free money from China is about to end. If the oil shocks of the 70s destroyed the state capitalism (which we now call communism), this is no less a pivot. Our students have to face a world very different from the one our education is preparing them for. 

That shift, to follow Zygmunt Bauman, is from 'liquid' society back to solidity again: We have all learnt to be consumers, and now we have to educate the producers again. The language of higher education should shift from rights to obligations, from the quest of possession to delayed gratification and the centrality of society instead of the economy in our lives. After decades of squabling about entitlements, professors must again return to purpose. Higher education should stop being the quest of easy degrees; it must reorient itself to the difficult job of transformation of the individual.

The challenge is, of course, that turkeys can't be expected to vote for Chrismas and the professoriate may not be exactly expected to endorse themselves out of existence. In the twentieth century, after the expansion of the state, most changes in higher ed have come from political activism, often pushed through by charismatic political personalities (Jennie Lee comes to mind). But the political class is currently running out of ideas and are consumed by the practice of politics for the sake of politics.

But any innovation in education is harder because the private sector plays the obstructive, rather than enabling, role. This is common in all the non-market sectors, where private players benefit from oligopolistic protection that the structure affords. They are, therefore, unlikely to change the status quo. In fact, all the recent excitement in EdTech has been an elaborate attempt to sustain the business-as-usual: The content as king (whose consumption a student makes), skills as commodities and learning as a solitary and selfish exercise! The EdTech unicorns are singularly golden cages for students-as-consumers, gratified with content - bite-sized on demand - and certification. They are designed to make less - not more - demand on the students' intellectual abilities, and definitely not prepare them for the future.

In this setting, therefore, the pivot in higher ed is likely to come from extra-campus ecologies, hacker communities redesigned as bootcamps, communities of practice emerging among practitioners in certain sectors, derelict professional bodies in search of survival and the emergent evening classes and public lectures - all those who got pushed out by the relentless expansion of industrial-educational complex in the last half century. In them, we should trust: The future of higher ed may not be in higher ed!


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