Saturday, September 10, 2011

On Not Going to University

Universities in the UK face a number of different challenges, but none more serious than from a growing coalition of professional and vocational training providers, which are questioning the value of going to the university. Somewhat paradoxically, at the surface at least, these efforts are driven by the two-plank strategy of the government - of cutting university funding which will hit the middle tier universities hard, and on the other hand, putting money on Apprenticeship programmes and projecting these as the panacea of all the social ills in Britain - while the Government ministers, as their lives and discourses show, are deeply reverential of the Oxbridge model, of the great education that the top-tier British universities provide. The growing traction of this opinion stream, that a student loses nothing but his indebtedness by not going to the university, is evident in the number of mentions websites like gets in various news forums. This is joined by the concerns over student debt, in the UK but more prominently in America, where the student debt has become larger than credit card debt and questions about what value university education brings have become most common.

This is an interesting debate to follow, as this is contemporaneous with the debate about national competitiveness and the value of talent. At one hand, there are claims being made that the Western economies must maintain their talent edge over the emerging economies of the South, and on the other, it seems that the governments are less keen on funding the 'white elephant' universities and want to channel a growing amount to work-based learning and other pursuits of less glamorous nature. This becomes even more interesting when contrasted with what is going on in some of the emerging market economies: China is funding and developing a group of soon-to-be-elite universities and India is setting up more Indian Institutes of Technology and of Management. The private sector in India is particularly interested in setting up Higher Education facilities, often in collaboration with the British or American ones, and a number of high profile corporate-sponsored universities are springing up in India. 

There are a number of ways observers are trying to reconcile these apparent paradoxes. The observers on the street are pointing out that countries like India had a low capacity of Higher Education, so such expansion is natural. However, seats in Indian Engineering Colleges and Business Schools go vacant, whereas British universities are full (this year, there was very little available for 'clearing') and have to turn down more than 250,000 students this year. The ministers' apathy to Higher Education is usually explained by the urgency of bridging the social divide and getting more people into more accessible form of education, or, conversely, from their inherent class bias and commitment to a two-tier system, and a deep disregard for middle ranking universities and the talk surrounding social mobility. The most unexplained bit in this debate is the fact that expansion of higher education in most developing countries is both quantitative and qualitative, so these countries have not just more seats but better provisions, and the decline, particularly in Britain, is bound to be qualitative too, given the deep cuts that went into the humanities subjects and the prevalence of 'jobs as the end goal of education' argument.

Without being a starry eyed idealist, one can possibly argue that the jobs and education equation is a disaster. Agreed that a young student must not waste their time learning a skill which isn't socially desirable or important, but to judge that social desirability in terms of how much salary one gets at the end of education is a stupid mistake. However, this is exactly where the preachers of social mobility is at one with the high priests of elitism in education: The masses go to college to serve their masters who will have sole preserve to social decision making after studying History and Classics at Oxford or Economics at Cambridge. The whole idea is that education is for doing and earning, and the job of thinking can be farmed out to someone who are better educated in some mystery-shrouded institution. And, if you are not expected to think, what's the point of going to the University?

Yet, this is strange in a world where the policy-makers, the ones entrusted to think, are proving to be so consistently wrong. Education is surely not working, and it is evident in the fact that we are always coming up with theories as evidently wrong as education does not work. Indeed, I shall not read too much in the growing cacophony of not going to uni kind; these are primarily made by desperate sorts who will send their own children to university by the money they make out of government hand-outs for running the apprenticeship machine. I read not much in the enthusiasm about apprenticeships, and rather see this as a replacement of the previous government's love affair with the NEETs. I am not sure about the social mobility argument, as these schemes are rather patronizing to its recipients and is set up to be a two-tier system where some people are supposed to work and others are supposed to rule. The whole drive to create this alternate education system is inherent in this regressive world-view of exclusivity, however counter-intuitive, perfectly in line with the thinking of an administration which will keep the interest rates down to save house-owners £50 billion a year, while the savers, typically poor people, lose £41 billion, and everyone else faces a high inflation.

Indeed, I am an optimist and see that people will defeat these schemes and still want to go to university if they could. Popular aspirations have always defeated political cynicism, and this will be another such time in history where people will prove cleverer than their masters. I worry about student debts, but the solution to that is in making the universities less insular and more effective, and not barring or inducing people to drop out from Higher Education altogether. We face a world where rules are not certain, and indeed, everyone would need to think for themselves: Good citizenship, if that's the goal, stands on thinking citizenship, not contented citizenship. Higher Education, even if we love t hate it, remains the only route to salvation in a society nearing its judgement day. 

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