Monday, May 25, 2015

Leapfrogging to 4G University

There is an argument that the developing countries will not follow the path of developed nations setting up educational institutions and campuses, but rather leapfrog into universities built on modern technologies, such as 4G. The evidence of leapfrogging can be found quite easily. Indeed, none of the developing countries went step by step through the IT revolution, and many of them directly joined in at the mobile era. The fact that a quarter of Kenyan GNP flows through mobile transactions is one of the great examples of technology leapfrogging, and often cited to back the case that universities may do the same. In fact, some commentators see the emphasis on university campuses and infrastructure in developing countries as plainly wasteful.

There are, however, two parts of this argument, which need to be examined separately. First, that the developing countries would not follow the evolutionary path traversed by developed countries is perhaps quite understandable. They are joining the game late, and in a radically altered world, one shaped by hyper-globalisation and automation. The educational challenge in developing countries will be shaped by the global reality, rather than the isolated national policies and preferences that shaped nineteenth century Higher Education in most developed nations. Some kind of educational leapfrogging is somewhat inevitable, because the graduates coming out of universities in Kampala and Mumbai would be considering work and professions shaped by global realities. 

Second, whether or not technology replace the campus (and the broader argument that setting up campuses in this day and age of modern technology is wasteful) has more dimensions than just technology leapfrogging, and should necessarily take into consideration what education is for. Many developing countries define their social and economic model still around the developed country model, and often following the orthodoxy of agrarian-industrial-service economy progression model. Every developing country in the world is being told to follow this path by those who lend them money, the developed country dominated institutions such as the IMF, and they are being led by men who have had, more often than not, an education in developed countries. The thinking about the future in developing nations are modelled around being the back-office (of factory) of the developed world. This social/ economic model does not assume any leapfrogging, even in the face of extreme disruptive change playing out globally, and are built around systems, such as intellectual property regimes and economic models designed to restrict such leapfrogging.

When seen in this context, one should start to see that a different educational structure, let us call it 4G University, is not just a function of technological possibility, but also how one thinks about economic development and social models. The hierarchy of labour concept, as we accept it and model a country's economic ambitions around it, naturally dictates that a similar idea is replicated in the inside economy, built around an elite to do the thinking work and the rest in various steps of the work ladder. This is why, notwithstanding the technological possibility, the developing countries will continue to build campuses and infrastructure, and endow professorial positions - because these are instruments of the power system that sustain this development model - and talk about skills education (as India does, see my note here) for everyone else. The physical limitations of a campus, it must be remembered, is not just a limitation of capacity, but the definition of privilege. 

Indeed, the people who theorize the coming of the 4G university tends to overlook this aspect. The 4G university, to them, is about directly accessing those excluded by campus universities of various nations and directly plugging them into global consumption. For them, 4G University is an instrument for establishing a global hierarchy of consumption and participation, without the middle tier of the national elite. But herein lies the fault line between the wishes of a local elite, who would want to maintain the structure of privilege, and a global elite, who would rather undermine their role. In that formation, 4G universities may happen, but it will be a handiwork of global capital, rather than something that the local elite intentionally help to build.

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