Skills 'fetish', really?

My current work is focused on alternate credentials based on project work. The key idea here is to create credentials based on experience and create a bridge between the academic world and vocational preparation. Therefore, the current excitement about microcredentials at the university corridors is at once a source of hope and also of disappointment (see my rant about microcredentials). 

But, at the same time, I also deal with this persistent doubt about what we are doing: Are we promoting an unsustainable skills fetish which trivialises education and sacrifice individuality and freedom to think at the altar of neoliberal 'paying the bills'?

Having spent most of my working life in For-profit education, I know which side of my bread is buttered. At the same time, my life as a historian of higher education, which I pursue with no less zeal or care, I feel burdened with the need to question my practice. 

For a start, I know that our idea of university is a historical, rather than natural, one. Universities are human institutions, which existed to serve a particular purpose. Since the 19th century, it has served the state more than the Church. With the gradual, neo-liberal withdrawal of the state from economic life in favour of private enterprises have shifted the priorities of the university. The institutions have ill-adapted to this change, subsuming themselves into a curious combination of managerialism and political correctness, trying to become all things to all people. But this has brought the universities to the twilight zone of 'skilling', which they neither understand nor desire to engage into, but from which their public legitimacy comes.

At the same time across the developing world, expansion of university infrastructure has thrown open the question what a university is for. This may be a misguided pursuit to mimic the western path to economic development, but this has allowed the Western universities a further claim to legitimacy, tinged with imperial pretensions, that they play a central role in global prosperity, no less. This has further extended the presumed role of the university, and created additional stress: The western universities have become integral to global consumer economy, a status commodity duly propped up by rankings and white faces essential to the middle class life from Santiago to Seoul. This affords a false sense of security around the 'university dream', more specifically a western university dream, that presumes that the universities can continue doing what they are doing as long as those hapless Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and other students will continue to buy its seals of approvals at their face value.

Hence, this tension between the consumer market demand from local working class which wants skills and jobs and the consumer market demand from the (relatively) richer kids abroad, who are looking for prestige, pleasure and a plaque to hang on their wall. The latter is something the universities understand better - that's their natural game: replication of privilege! Therefore, it seems my pleas to develop microcredentials look too for-profitish, too downmarket, too removed from the transcendant idea of university as a privileged's playground!

But things are changing. It's been roughly 75 years since colonialism ended (if we take the independence of India as the beginning of the end) and supposed affinities that it left behind - language, institutional heritage, literary connections - are now firmly being challenged. The neoliberal age, with its dream of the flat world delivering unending prosperity, is coming to its own penny-dropping moment: de-globalisation, return of inflation, a demographic pivot towards a contraction, are all pointing to the limits of our current model. It's showtime for universities: as the economies adjust to the periods of slow growth or contraction, sequence of crisises (Brexit, Pandemic and Cost of Living crisis, seen from Britain), the insitutions will be asked to show up and be counted. They need to show how they are helping solve problems that matter rather than existing for the sake of a cosmopolitan footloose elite. 

For me, therefore, 'skills fetish' is far more preferable than the ranking fetish. The latter is keeping them firmly rooted in a cosmopolitan vacuum and eroding the universities' legitimacy as a public institution. And, besides, skills demand is fast changing: The requirements for lifelong learning is real and irreversible. There are just too many people struggling with changing demands of workplaces and increasingly digitised life, not just in terms of 'how-to' skills but also to deal with the 'why' questions. It would be silly not to accept the skills mandate and rather arrogant to assume that skills do not necessarily involve thinking, arguing and creating.  


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