Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Education is the Killer App

I don't remember who said this to me first, but it is something I deeply believed in and reorientated my career therefore. The premises are simple: In an uncertain world, in the context of post-industrial civilization, knowledge rules. Whoever thinks middle classes are gone, should think again: Despite the decline of middle class jobs in the Western countries, there is a huge increase in the numbers joining the Middle Class ranks all over the world, with similar aspirations, consumption habits and hunger for 'degrees'. Education is the 'app' that makes it happen: This is going to be the killer app for now and for future.

I am fully aware that in America, there is this discussion about Education Bubble. One can see clear economic reasoning, save one. It is improper to compare higher ed to housing, as the former is a super-portable merit good and the other is the model of illiquidity. You can't take your house along if you move to a better job in another city, so it must be sold, but education indeed does not tie you down in any way: In fact, it makes you move. Look deeper into the Housing Boom and Bust, and one can see the lack of mobility is one of the key reason for the crisis. Education stands at the opposite end of the pole, that creates a super-flexible economy and endows the individual recipient with global mobility - so its pay-off should be much easier to come by.

However, I shall possibly agree that the model of education that we have currently may need to change. While one needs to dedicate a phase of life to 'studentship' when education should come first, I am not sure sticking someone inside a classroom for twenty-odd years is the best way to do this. I am not necessarily talking about 'practical' experience, because this often leads to a diversion from the values of studentship: Being stuck in practical may mean that one loses the critical perspective of his/her surrounding. However, education should surely be more open. For example, college leaving should neither be stigmatized as a failure nor it should be irreversible as in Britain today. As Lord Rees was arguing in a recent seminar I was attending, people should be able to leave college with some 'credits' for whatever they have done and the education system should accept them back if they intend to return to studies at a later stage of their lives. Indeed, this is common in America, and saying 'I did a couple of years of college' is common: But, this does not work the same way in Britain, and other countries, and this is where the current model of education is not fit for purpose.

Besides, if education's great value is in enhancing mobility and understanding of diversity in the world, it manifestly fails to do so. Worryingly, higher education is being increasingly confused with training of advanced technical trades: Nothing wrong with the latter except that one needs a higher level of understanding of the world around themselves to function as a responsible citizen of a highly complicated world. Too much of technical training and one would not blink deleting voicemail messages secretly while hacking into the phone of an abducted schoolgirl, so to speak.

And, this is not about lecturing on moral science after all the required classes are over, but re-emphasizing the need for a good education to create and maintain stable and successful societies. This is where we are often getting it wrong: In most countries, 'training is the killer app' and education is dead and gone. But, the world is unlikely to continue as it is: The possibility of an American debt default is real unless the rich and poor go beyond their narrow self interests; the possibility of Europe imploding is real unless the rich Germans show an understanding of the plight of Greek pensioners; Climate Wars will happen with catastrophic consequences if India and Pakistan do not learn to share river water very soon. Everywhere one looks, one can see a complete failure of the model of education we have deployed so far and a crying need for a new model.

This indeed makes good business. I shall argue that there is a private solution to this. And, I sincerely believe that privatization does not mean junking the education ideals once and for all, but indeed preserving them. The wholesale transition to narrow technicality did happen under the public sector's watch, as the bureaucrats muddled through without knowing why on earth anyone needs critical perspectives on the way things are run. But that is unlikely to be the case when private entrepreneurs come in. We need a regulatory environment that is fit for purpose, and as in other industries, regulatory environments find the entrepreneur it deserves. So, if we get the regulatory environment right, which is the job of public intellectuals and concerned citizens, we would find innovative and accountable businesses in the education sector. This is exactly what we need now, in Britain and elsewhere, companies which bring the values of business (I am aware of the skepticism that surrounds 'values' in business, but don't think that's fair) to the long term life-changing game of education.

We can ill-afford not to have them.

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