Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Era of Global College

College, except the rhetoric, remains an intensely local affair. One may talk about globalisation of education, of jobs and of knowledge, but only 2% of world's students study outside their home countries. Over the last 150 years, during which the universities were revived - and rightly, this was a revival as John Ruskin meant 'revival is of things that did not exist before' - the nation state has claimed it fully. Mostly in the name of teaching the 'useful arts', primarily in United States but also elsewhere in Europe, the state claimed the universities and turned them, rightly, into the instruments of making citizens. Indeed, this meant a two-, or a multi-tier system, that of making the rulers and the ruled, and alongside newspapers, the university education was essential to the making of modern state.

Now that the state is in retreat, the college is somewhat left on its own. Besides, the great mythology of meritocracy, that everyone had the same chance in life if everyone had tried hard enough, is somewhat discredited. In the new gilded era that we live in, greed, and unabashedly unequal privileges and perks for a few, is good. The college education, that surefire ticket to middle class life, is no longer vaunted. There are just too many people going to college, some will complain. Graduate unemployment is on the rise. Irrelevance has set in.

Indeed, the rhetoric is that college keeps a nation 'competitive'. This is about science and technology stealing the march, but that limits what the college can do or actually does. This claim is about research money, and that, more and more research is what it buys. Indeed, a large part of the research produced today is vanity research - papers that the researchers and their family (not really) only read - but this at least provides the justification to the policy-makers why the universities are needed. However, this wont save the universities as this de-emphasises teaching even further. The great hope of building nations of geniuses that peaked in the Postwar years is truly dead and buried.

However, there are other forces which have come to prominence, perhaps irreversibly. Globalisation, that umbrella term which seeks to hide and yet glorify the globally transient flexibly accumulative capitalism, is now the unseen elephant in the China shop: The Vice Chancellors are somewhat the blind men who can hear the breaking China but yet to figure out the beast.

Indeed, it isn't easy to make up our minds of globalisation. Till the 1990s, the poor was global and the rich had the local, but this has reversed now. Everyone seemed to have a tipping point of globalisation in their lives. For me, it was when Camay, the soap, became ordinarily available in my local shop. The previous object of desire, to be purchased with special effort and significant sum of money, was suddenly sitting there, alongside other ordinary soaps on the same shelves: Apparently, at that point, it started being manufactured in India, where I grew up. Over the last half-decade or so, it seemed that globalisation, on the back of a global recession, is achieving the unity of force which will make it an accepted fact, rather than a contested idea. It has surely entered the discussions about the college, in the college: So far, it is that impoverished version of globalisation, where a sprinkling reference of the otherness, passing under the tag of 'culture', sufficed mention and kept everyone happy. It is here, in college education, the final battle for the nation states was being fought for last several years.

With a pre-determined outcome, sadly! While the college itself declines alongside its national patrons, and globalisation takes over our drawing rooms (and bathrooms, as mentioned), the other obtrusive force in our China shop of sensibilities is technology. The techniques of human connections have now been transformed, and indeed, despite the persistent resistance from inside most colleges, they are being transformed. Like newspapers, college classrooms formed communities on the national lines: Like Internet, the modern learning technology will create inherently global colleges. This will not just mean global delivery of learning, as it seems to mean today. It will also mean deep 'internationalization' (one would wonder why we use the term, but this has something to do with the politics of the academia) of the curriculum and truly global conversations about teaching and learning. If the new architecture and building technologies defined the national-modern college, networking technologies will help us craft the ones in the new global-modern era. It is not necessarily post-human, as some of the commentators seem to be concerned about: It is just another phase in human transformation, and progress.

So, that's the story: The college, abandoned by the nation states, as the latter plunge into a terminal crisis, will find a new identity in globalisation, enabled by the new technologies of human connections. This will change everything, including the students' expectations and ultimately the scholarship they produce. It will give the college a new purpose - that of educating a global generation. And, this transformation will go beyond the superficial tinkering on the edges of nationally constructed curriculum and bring about fundamental shifts in knowledge and learning. 

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