Sunday, December 26, 2010

Essays for the New Year: The Context of 'International Higher Education'

The recession is refusing to go away. Even before some good news emerged in the United States - at last - Europe started crumbling. It was Deja Vu all over again: The leaders' scramble, a patched up loan fund, a North-South divide, and one crisis after another. We are just in the Christmas Break from the crisis, and there is no signs yet that the domino effect has been contained.

And, it is not about the financial crisis alone. The world continued its journey towards becoming a more dangerous place. Despite some drone-induced victory against Al Queda and Asif Zardari clinging on to power by his teeth in Pakistan, the American-led coalition in Asia looked tired and divided, ready to cut-and-run, in contrast with their opponents, who seemed to have an endless stream of recruits, covert state sponsors and a zeal to continue for thousand years. North Korea, on the brink under pressures of economic crisis and leadership succession, continued to play dangerously. The Chinese induced thaw in Burma achieved little other than pushing the country out of headlines, for a moment. But the list of failed states continued to get longer - Somalia, Yemen, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Chad, Congo - all hovered dangerously close to disintegration.

The only hope against this world-wide disintegration and disorder came from the middle classes. One may say, their time has finally come. In a historical sense, middle classes were the maintainers of society, who wrote the books and found the justification for the existing social order. However, their influence was only very limited on the polity and economies of the world, and indeed, this has more to do with their defining characteristics, fear of unknown and love of conformity, than anything else. They were, in a sense, the conduit of production - they managed the working classes to produce and sell the produce at an 'acceptable' price - and of savings, so that the surplus could be used by various agencies to maintain the status quo.

However, suddenly, the role expectation of the middle classes have changed. They are being seen as the saviours of modern day capitalism, and are accorded a much more central role in the politics and economics than they were previously allowed.

Apparently, there are at least three reasons for this new found love for the Middle Classes.

First, the Post-Colonial model of keeping the vast territories of Asia, Latin America and Africa under control through a well-fed elite class is proving to be unsustainable. This is primarily because of the shift in the economic role of these territories, from the 'passive' supplier of natural resources to 'active' producers of manufactured goods and services. This expands the need of hired hands in these territories and their active participation, not just physical but even ideological, in the world economic system. This changes everything: Previously, these countries needed a small middle class, now they need a large one.

Second, there is a role reversal of sorts for middle classes as the world economy is reeling from excess savings in certain areas, which has driven the real interest rates low, almost negative. This, in crude economic sense, means that the previous generations in Asia, Lat-Am and Africa lent too much money to American bankers and forgot to take a payback. The developed economies loved to play with the surplus, but as production in these territories stemmed and people generally started settling for a more comfortable life, someone needed to keep churning the wheels of money. This is now expected of these middle classes in 'Southern' countries, that they not only produce but consume, not just save but borrow.

Third, apart from the needs of production and consumption, there is a need for the Middle Classes to play a part in politics. This is indeed the dangerous bit. One has now come to realize that keeping tinpot rulers like Kings and Emirs of the Gulf is not sustainable; they undermine the authority of the state itself and give birth to powerful non-state actors. The only way to save the modern state, and along with it the current economic and political arrangements, is to get the middle classes involved. Democracy, in short, but the controlled version of it, where, like in the West now, everyone speaks more or less the same language. The framework can be summarized as : You can have any democracy as long as it is run by Murdoch.

So, in essence, the world needs the middle classes, in their millions now. They are needed to manage the productions (and herd the working classes), lead the queues to the stores and run the conformist democracies. They are the vanguards of 'power-spread' - as opposed to the myth of the center of the economic world shifting to the East - some sort of wild west pioneers tasked to bring the world into a single fold.

Now, this is the world we step into, in 2011. I see the context of International Higher Education in this background: Tasked to create the new middle classes and expand it, equip it to become the vanguards of the new global order. Whether or not I agree with this goal, I see this to be a necessary historical phase. I almost know this will happen: This is a necessary step before the Capitalist system reaches its full glory. However, the humanistic university system, developed in the West just before the spread of democracies, is not fit for purpose for this world-wide land grab. This new education isn't about equipping people to be a 'man of the society' merely. The assumption is that the society does not exist - not at least in the desirable form - and the new emerging middle classes will shape the next societies, integrated into the capitalist system as producers and consumers (as opposed to mere suppliers) and which share the same values (anglophone, perhaps, and enthralled with Murdoch press). This is the job of a new breed of For Profit education providers, agile and adaptive, who will lead the trail and draw a lot of attention in the new year and beyond. After years of languishing on the sidelines, Higher Education is suddenly cool - right at the center of the global agenda of rebuilding out of recession.

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