Sunday, December 14, 2014

Global Workforce Crisis: Framing The Education Question

I have posted about Global Workforce Crisis and Education as its only plausible solution. However, the question remains: If the problem is so obvious, and everyone more or less agrees that good education is the solution, and, more importantly, as everyone seems to talk about it too, why do we have so little done? Indeed, one could say that there has been a surge in private investment in education - in fact, education, and particularly technology-led solutions to education, has been one of hottest sector for venture investment since 2011 - but the impact of it, particularly in improving access and quality of education for poorer people, has been very limited. In fact, apart from the eye-watering amounts that some of the MOOC companies raised (and one could argue that MOOCs are not for everyone, but just the well-educated), most of the education investment has gone into creating top-end schools and colleges, improving the quality and opportunity for the top 5% - 10% of the population [In the developing countries, for an even narrower range of beneficiaries]. 

The logic of the investment is quite clear: The money goes to the segments which can pay for the services. However, the Global Workforce Crisis, if we accept it, poses a bigger question: Should we not be looking at ways to provide good education to everyone? And, indeed, under our current funding models, is it at all possible to do so? And, if it needs to change, what needs to change?

There has already been some debate about it: Parag Khanna and Karan Khemka's solution was to enroll the world in For-Profit universities (see here). They blamed the regulators for making innovation in education difficult, driving away private investment even when the need is so urgent. One could argue whether the track record of For-Profit education sector warrants such optimism. There were also other arguments about changing how we educate. Michele Wiese of Christensen Institute argues for Online Competency-based Education to replace the tradition-bound models of Higher Education (see her paper here). Again, she points to the academic inertia, and portrays a picture of a lethargic professional class who has lost touch with reality and abrogated their social contract. Her point was to call for an urgent 'reformation' (I use the word deliberately) of education, changing what is taught and how it is taught.

There is some validity in all these points of views. However, one should also take into account wider social issues than just trying to answer who is teaching and what is being taught. This is important because it is rather silly to complain that straightforward plausible solution exists for the education problem. The rich in the United States, and in almost all countries in the world, enjoy an enormous political leverage (so much so that Lawrence Lessig calls United States 'Lesterland') and since the Global Workforce Crisis may indeed upset the economic balance and cause deep problems, it is incomprehensible why more was not done more urgently.

The problem with democratizing access to good education, I shall argue, is that this in itself is deeply disruptive to our current economic structures and institutions. The enormous inequality that we see in our society is legitimised on the basis of merits and smarts. We, however, know that such merits and smarts are tied to educational outcomes, and the educational outcomes are tied to family income more than anything else. However, perpetuating the myth that certain sections of the population are stupid (and, as Baroness Jenkin recently said, they can't cook) is easier than opening up education access. In fact, both Messers Khemka & Khanna's solution, and Ms Wiese's prescription uses popular rhetoric to frame a solution that limits, rather than expands, access to good quality education, as it seeks to limit public involvement in education both short term (by driving education for profit, which essentially creates a system of differentiated education, on the basis of ability to pay) and long term (by undermining the need for involved citizenship, which guarantees the continuation of such public involvement). David Rotman in his recent MIT Technology Review article on technology and inequality makes the point that we may be overpaying for our educated workers by limiting access to good education. But then such an arrangement may actually make sense to all those who matter.

I am not one to point to any conspiracy theories, but just that good education upsets the power structures that we have, because it undermines the core assumptions behind those power structures. Indeed, the Global Workforce Crisis does the same - upsets the institutional structures we have built - but it does so over a longer period of time. Our democratic governments, stock-market driven corporations and individualistic morality make us prioritise on stability today over stability in the long run. It makes sense not to be serious about education, just as much as it did when Louis the XVth said "Après moi, le déluge" (Revolution will come, but my time will pass).

 


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