The world has changed, but the education system, especially higher
education, continues to work as if the world has remained essentially
unchanged. The modern university system was born in Germany less than 200 years
ago, and was shaped by the dramatic changes wrought by the Industrial
As factories started integrating processes that were once distributed over many artisanal workshops and brought them all under one roof, they needed armies of workers who could understand and follow instructions, and be counted on to perform repetitive tasks through the working day. Hence the processes of education, including those at school, became standardised as the idea was to produce students capable of responding in the same way to the factory environment.
The same paradigm applied to other aspects of society and government, with the stress on mass production, standardisation, repetitively performed tasks, and the ability to follow instructions. As technology became more demanding, and more complex problems had to be solved using more complex scientific knowhow and technology, research became part of the mandate of universities.
While the university system in Europe was largely set up and run by the State, in the United States they were initiatives taken by local communities with different rules set by each State. The key was that funding was to be managed by each university, leading to the formation of land grant colleges, and later to private universities set up by grants from wealthy benefactors.
The cost of university education became, and remains today, one of the factors that determines access to higher education in the US, whereas it is different in Europe. Student loans became a huge business for lenders, and today student debt has crossed $1 trillion, and is bigger than credit card debt as a form of unsecured loans.
THE QUALITY DEFICIT
In India, the initial universities were all set up by the State, and students were selected on the basis of scholastic aptitude. This meant that most students came from the educated class, which meant from the better-off castes. At the turn of Independence, measures aimed at affirmative action to correct the skewed educational pattern were put in place, and have been in operation for more than half a century.
The results, in terms of inclusion of the ‘weaker’ castes and sections of society, have been moderately successful, although authoritative studies show that the pattern of life’s outcome have remained more or less intact, still being determined largely by the caste and station of life one is born into.
The last 50 years has seen a peculiar phenomenon across the globe — prescribing university degrees for occupations that previously did not require these qualifications. This is true not only for the developing countries, but also of the developed economies. This has led to a huge increase in demand for university education, with supply not keeping pace with demand.
As a result, university education has become more expensive, and the impact on quality as supply has tried to expand, has been devastating. As good teachers have left to staff new universities at higher remuneration, older once well-known colleges and universities have gone into terminal decline.
While much discussion has eddied around course content, structure, and duration, very little attention has been paid to the learning experience that a student undergoes while she is at university.
LEARNING BY ROTE
Classroom learning remains unidirectional, flowing from the omniscient lecturer to the passive student, with lessons being treated as delivery of received knowledge, that is perfect and complete. Hence what is tested is the capacity to reproduce from memory lessons and concepts, without testing the capacity of the student to critically analyse data and draw intelligent conclusions for herself.
Knowledge, far from being treated as work in progress, is treated as received wisdom, perfect and immaculate.
At the individual level, higher education today faces many challenges in terms of quality and nature of the learning experience, skills learnt, and fitness for the purpose for which education is sought. But the far more serious crisis is at the aggregate level, where large numbers of young people take on heavy debt to acquire an education that seems to have only a tenuous connection with the skills they need to negotiate their way through life.
Many ill-equipped young people join universities, after taking heavy student loans, and drop out finding themselves unable to cope. Look at the figures for the US, which has arguably the best higher education system in the world: with student debt at over $1 trillion, the percentage of students dropping out is around 30%, and the quality of teachers as well as that of the learning experience is deteriorating.
Therefore, instead of helping to equip young people to change the world, the higher education system has helped reinforce the power relations within which it was embedded, by active collaboration and design.
Perhaps it is time to take a total relook at how education is being managed, from the way it is organised, to who runs it, and who takes the key decisions. It is interesting that the modern western university system can be traced to the first university set up in Bologna in the 11th century, and which continues to exist to this day. This was started by students from different ‘nations’ living in Bologna, and they organised themselves into a larger association or universitas— thus the university.
This university grew to have bargaining power with the city, since these students added to the revenues of the city. Students appointed professors to teach various subjects, and the performance of the professors and their regular taking of classes determined whether they were retained.
Students as a group decided the subjects to be taught and who taught them. This democratic and student-run character of the university changed over time, and the university came to be run by professors, who determined the curriculum, and which courses should be taught.
Students were reduced to passive consumers of the services offered by the university, and this was a fateful change that has endured to this day. This decline in the status of students suffered further when the education system changed its focus from the cultivation of knowledge and its transmission to providing a stream of young people trained in skills the emerging industrial juggernaut needed.
Standardisation of curriculum, of pedagogy, and hence of learning experiences further shrank the mental horizons of students, taking them further away from the creative young people they once were. As Ken Robinson, British author, speaker, expert on education, creativity and innovation, and others have pointed out, children start out with natural curiosity and the thirst to learn, and this is progressively thwarted and discouraged through a variety of means, chief among them being standardisation. The nail that sticks out is hammered down, as rebels among the young people soon discover to their cost. Every non-standard attribute is treated as a deviation, as something that should be corrected.
Fortunately, correctives are on the way, and not initiated by those who are in charge of higher education. The market, albeit the impassive and soulless power that determines all outcomes, is already sending out signals that much of higher education is ill-suited to the demands of the emerging world into which young people are soon going to go out and make their lives.
Courses and programmes that equip young people with these skills will find takers, and programmes that encourage those with creative aptitude or a research outlook will find such people make a beeline to them. Academic programmes will have to undergo a fundamental overhaul, in terms not only of content and methods, but also of duration.
The long ‘tunnel’ view of higher education, where one enters the programme after high school or undergraduate studies, to emerge after several years as a doctor or engineer or scientist, is changing as students and teachers realise that innovation and creativity happens at the intersection of disciplines, and that familiarity with more than one discipline and collaboration with those working in other disciplines is required to produce outstanding work.
Probably the biggest change will be wrought by self-learning programmes that are now enabled by technology, which make it possible for a student to access lectures by outstanding teachers anywhere in the world. Students will now be able to learn at their own pace, without being pressured to compare themselves to their peers, and without damage to their self-esteem and confidence.
The library of MOOC modules is growing by the day, and enables the young person hungry to learn, to do so anywhere at any time. This is going to shake the edifice of higher education to its foundations, and hopefully will bring it down, so that in its place can be raised a structure better suited to the learning needs of young people and the society they live and work in. Thus, the three challenges of traditional higher education that are driving it into a blind alley — cost, content, and access are now going to be resolved through a combination of advancing technology and changes in the world around us.
Students will be able to easily access higher education, choose the content that they are interested in, and learn at their own pace. They cannot be denied access on any grounds, including economic factors or social disabilities, or on account of their past performance.
Young people will then truly awake into a world, as Rabindranath Tagore memorably said: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free...”.