Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Building An Alternative to University

It has always been difficult to build an alternative to the universities in the modern times. Even if any innovation in learning happened outside the universities, the system expanded to absorb the new areas: Medical Schools, Business Schools, IT Schools, all started outside universities and prospered for a while as private initiatives, but then the moment university system expanded to absorb the new areas, the challengers withered. 

However, at this time, we are approaching a point where these venerable institutions look increasingly open to challenges from outside, and look vulnerable. There are several reasons for this: The universities have less resources to keep expanding, for a start. And, new global possibilities are emerging which publicly funded universities can't do very well. Technologies, not just of learning delivery, but of community building, of measurement and management, are emerging, making 'open source learning' possible. And, besides, universities themselves have become too attached to the 'System' - in a way, they have been consumed by the bureaucratic Higher Education systems, and have somewhat lost the claim of the community they wish to be. 

Also, the universities have mostly become a credential factory, drawing legitimacy from the recognition by the sponsoring nation states than anything else. Its role isn't defined by learning any more, but just by the mandates from the omnivorous 'Higher Education System'. Instead of building successful lives, which they claim they are for, all too often, they indulge in language games, making people failures and making them feel guilty for their failures. Its credential mechanisms seem to exist solely to justify layers of social privilege and exclusion. In a way, the system has devoured all the ideals of an university - a community of learning, the safe place to find an identity, a social place to produce knowledge - and what's left is a caricature of brain-programming machine, a tool to engineer and maintain a social order.

The universities are indeed terrifyingly effective in this, indeed, but the context is shifting. The nation states sponsors of the universities are as weak as ever, and will continue to weaken as the shift of power from states to financiers continue. However, there are other pressures that undermine the universities. The link between the education and employment seems to be broken: Whoever may be responsible for this, the net effect is that this undermines the need, and the value, of the credentials the universities hand out. And, finally, and more ominously, people wanting just the credential and nothing else is on the rise, creating huge incentives for pseudo-universities all over the world, which exist in the twilight zones of the system, but nonetheless exist and are even successful.

It is more difficult to spot a pseudo-university than one would think: These are no longer one room entities handing out fake degrees, but large operations with building and staff handing out perfectly legitimate degrees which involve no learning. The markets, which seem to enjoy supreme confidence of all our policy-makers, have decisively valued 'credential for the sake of credentials' over 'learning for the sake of learning'. The result is indeed those legitimate operations which satisfy the needs of the markets, but have a corrosive influence on the core proposition, reconfiguring the student expectations and eventually undermining its own construct of degrees-for-jobs.

It is on these ruins of the ideas of the university new alternatives will be built. The 'System' will continue to exist and exert great influence, till it crumbles one day under the weight of its own unfulfilled promises. We are not yet sure what the new alternative life-forms will be like, except one thing: That they would be diverse. The diversity of aims, the diversity of aspirations, the diversity of methods and possibilities - all point to a diverse future, where more than a single idea of university can successfully exist. One would expect this will lead to the construction of employer-led entities which will focus on economic productivity and further away from traditional activities that we know the universities for; on the other end of the spectrum, there will be learning communities united to explore and converse, and to create alternate possibilities from simply surrendering to the employer-mandated world. Acceptance of this diversity will be a challenge, but an imperative, for all educators: Each constituent will no doubt claim to provide the 'final alternative' to what has come to be regarded as a broken system. However, there may no longer be one solution after all: The days of the 'system' may be truly over.

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