Being middle class means, among other things, aspiring to go to college and having a white collar job of some description in the end. While millions in Asia, Africa and Latin America follow this dream, in the West, there is a different reality: Middle class jobs are disappearing. They are mostly moving down the ladder, reduced to irrelevance by the rise of clever machines. The solid certainty, the ethic of working for a retirement, alongside a clear vision of what life would be like thirty years on, are all fragments of nostalgia. Regardless of aspirations, middle class lives and jobs are disappearing all over the world.
We have come a long way from the Fifties, the age of optimism and rebuilding after the war, when Higher Education was deemed to be the ticket to good life. Politicians in all countries wanted to provide more and more Higher Education, and told their folks to go to college.
But, we still say similar things: One of President Obama's professed, and hitherto unmet, goals is to make America number one in the world in terms of college graduates in the workforce. China is in a race to make their universities world-class. Britain, where the Government has just cut almost all funding to universities, the college-for-jobs rhetoric as strong as ever: In fact, that is the founding principle why students are expected to pay for their own education (despite the protestations of the academicians). India's Education Minister talks about the need of another thousand universities in the country. Call it a hangover of the fifties, but we deeply believe that taking a person through college can change his/her life.
There is some carefully crafted logic behind such a belief. It is also undeniable that work has become more complex, more intellectually challenging in most cases. And, there is an unmistakable graduate premium - people with college degrees tend to earn more on an average - which justifies more and more people trying to go to college every year.
However, Graduate Premium is only an average statistical figure: For most people, college is a net negative, a debt figure that sets them back in life. I know the feeling of coming out of college and not knowing what one can be useful for first hand. Colleges mostly fail the students. Regardless of what the politicians say, Higher Education Institutions often model themselves after the class ideals of a bygone era than the needs of a professional society. The rituals of college life, the pretensions of being ancient, the ideals of quality as defined in the leisurely pursuit of pure knowledge, and the underlying conception of an ideal student profile - middle class kids with social and cultural capital with an ambition to follow his dad's trail - all at odds with the claims of preparing someone for the modern day jobs, with all attendant uncertainty, complexity and possibilities. However, I shall argue, Higher Education as it is, can not simply break with the past and think anew.
In Britain, persuaded by the lure of mass Higher Education, the politicians converted most polytechnics to Higher Education Institutions in the nineties and thereafter, expanding the capacity rightly. For the more established universities, this was not the abolition of polytechnics, but the abolition of what it meant to be an university. However, the opposite happened in the end: ex-Polytechnics easily adapted to the ideas of the leisurely pursuit of knowledge, and all the other pomp and practices of the ancient universities and soon sneered at their private sector colleagues, whom they saw as buccaneers from the world of vocational training. Indeed, these Mass Higher Education institutions themselves have a problem: In China, the university you went to matter more than the classification of the degree. Ditto in the UK, or USA, or any other country for that matter.
The Lower Education
Further down the prestige chain, there is an extensive system of vocational training for people who do not go to college. This alternative stream is to be about things practical, jobs to do with hand. However, the vocational training system in most countries is designed, surely by a few well educated decision makers, to keep thinking and questioning out of it. This is a sort of 'lower' education, for the shop-floor of the industrial society, practical but made for exclusion from the driving seat of life.
It does not matter that fixing High Voltage Electric supply may need similar skills and even greater courage than flying unmanned aerial vehicles to bomb Afghan villages, and nursing the sick may demand a much greater skill than designing a derivative. Not the complexity or the social requirement seems to be define our hierarchy of education. It is neither the well-worn argument about thinking: In the jobs of nursing and electrical mending, as opposed to flying UAVs or running hedge funds, life and death is the irreversible life and death as we know it, not just a PR inconvenience.
Call it the caste system of education, it is ingrained in the discussion about Higher Education. Thorstein Veblen sneered at vocational education a century ago, fearing that business schools will corrupt great universities: The universities today, despite their high-pitched claims to be employer-friendly, do not see it to be their responsibility to prepare the students for a job. Instead, the prestige of the universities, as codified in various university rankings, comes from the selectivity of their admission processes and their research output measured by citations earned, that of, in other words, the social and cultural standing of their teachers and students.
On the other hand, the vocational training trade, the space occupied by community colleges (in America and their equivalent elsewhere), private training schools and schools run by trade bodies, is expected to be non-selective, and given incentives to reach out to NEETs (Not in Education, Employment and Training, a British term, but its equivalent exists in different countries), people who have signed out of the education and social system. This embeds a know-your-place system of education, a Higher and Lower system deeply entrenched, a message carefully designed and disseminated for the preservation of the social system as it is.
The Myth of Meritocracy
Considering these, one would see that the Higher Education isn't about social mobility at all, but its opposite, the preservation of social order through the myth of meritocracy. It is about claiming college as the great engine of human civilization, while guarding the gates carefully about social and cultural capital requirements for entering college, and sending the excluded to the machine of vocational training, where their spirits can be crushed and no questions must be asked, and a life of trade, toil, discipline and obedience must be accepted. This is a system to make the middle class privileges to look like God-given rights, something ingrained in a few people, in their genes perhaps.
Seen this way, universities are the defensive mechanism of the middle classes to preserve their privileges from the new incumbents from the villages and outer reaches of the developing world. Indeed, these privileges are modeled after the aristocrats who preceded the Middle Classes, they have to be; this is indeed why being ancient seems to be equated with reputation (though we don't seem to think ancient is stale in many other knowledge industries) and the outmoded rituals and practices must be maintained with great care.
This is why Higher Education and its value system, a carry-over from the Victorian reform spirit in England and Lincoln era in America, will be up for a disruptive change. This is not about For-Profits ruling the world: They don't have a chance, as long as their ideas are to copy the university recipe and try to play by the same formula. But, like it happened in other industries, a new innovative player, a Google or Facebook equivalent will now emerge to change this stratified system of higher education on its head and bridge, without apologies, the gap between education and trade. As Stefan Collini argues, the universities were always vocational, first teaching the preachers classics, then teaching the statesmen history and philosophy: From time to time, that message is lost in the pomp and pretension and the desire to preserve a broken system. However, we may have now reached the tipping point and the disruption must now begin.