More and more people have recently been writing about a new economic model for higher education (Andy Coverdale, Clark Quinn, and Tom Haskins, just to name a few). However, as we grapple around the world with how higher education should be structured and funded, we aren't willing to reexamine the underlying beliefs upon which the funding and academic structures were created. Now is the time to begin to look at the basis of the traditional structures and how they have changed, and the current needs in a new structure that will fit Higher Education's needs.
The History of Higher Education in the West
Higher education came out of a belief that only those within power should have access to knowledge. The knowledge included philosophy, history, stories (literature), music, etc... In other words, the humanities. This made sense as only those who were rich and powerful would have the time to study subjects that did not necessarily contribute to every day economics of that time: agriculture, warfare, trade skills. Often, those that were educated were the spare sons. This allowed powerful families to control what knowledge was passed down and how that knowledge would be perpetuated.
The advent of the printing press allowed for knowledge to be transferred from location to location in greater amounts. Still, higher education was only for those who were "scholars". The economic reasons for this was that the serf system allowed powerful families to maintain their power, and knowledge was perceived as a commodity to be controlled by those families who had power, land (thus resources), and a means to control their serfs.
Adam Smith developed the principles of Capitalism as the economy, in the form of the industrial revolution and the age of mercantilism, changed the need for knowledge within the economy. No longer was a person's wealth tied to family (birth), but also know how, skills, and the ability to understand the complex systems outside of the local environs. People were "human capital" and became mobile, something that was not possible under a serfdom. More importantly, a person could go to a university, if they were clever enough, and "gain" the knowledge that was originally set aside for children of the wealthy and powerful landowners.
There was also a shift towards science and the creation (think industrial revolution) of products, tools, and technology as people moved away from their sources of substance (food, water). Soon, in places like the US, there was the recognition that knowledge was a commodity that, when invested, could lead to power, riches, and opportunities. In other words, the university was one means to "acquire" the knowledge that could be used to participate in the economy. However, up until the end of the 20th century, higher education was still perceived as something that could be withheld or distributed, thus allowing some to "possess" the knowledge and then use that to be successful in the economy.
During this period of time, knowledge was also perceived as being individual. An individual could pass knowledge on to other individuals. If an individual did not do well in a class, it was because that individual, even though they had access to knowledge, was not able to use it because he or she was lacking in some way (not smart enough, not motivated enough, looking for the wrong type of knowledge that would be useful for that individual). The university was a way to train future leaders in the economy, and as a result, universities decided on who would have the most potential, which subjects to study, and what would be the most useful for the economy. This is one reason why so many universities eventually became government run. The university was a means to implement public policy.
However, also during this time period, the economy changed to one in which corporations, not individuals became the structure within which the economic decisions were being made. While there has been a lot written and criticized about corporations, they have had an impact on how business is done and who controls resources. Adam Smith's theories included an explanation of motivations based on the serfdom model in which the individual landowner would have a self interest in making sure that those within his or her community were taken care of. However, as communities became mobile, and companies no longer had individuals, but rather a collective making decisions, his theories no longer are true.
New Basis for Economic Model for Higher Education
Much work has been done in the last two decades on the knowledge economy. In addition, during the 20th century, there was a realization that the economic principles of the past were not fitting the economic realities on the present. With this in mind, any new economic model for higher education will have to take the following premises in mind:
1) Knowledge is no longer just in individual "thing" possessed internally. Knowledge can be collective (within an organization for example), be located externally (via the web for example), and time dated (it can be irrelevant the moment it is created).
2) Humans are no longer "capital" that can be or are expected to be moved around to take advantage of opportunities. When they do move, often it is based on many factors, most of which may not be quantifiable. Humans don't always make "rational" decisions. And societies in the 21st century have (for the most part) recognized that individuals have the right to make decisions about their education, work, where they live, and what they do with their free time.
3) Every individual has the right to education and literacy. It no longer (for the most part) should be limited to just those born into power and privilege.
4) Knowledge and services are major contributors to the economy. The basis of many of our jobs is the ability to learn new skills and apply both individual and collective knowledge to a situation.
As a result, it is clear to me that the current capitalistic model used currently to decide what we should be doing with higher education is no longer relevant. My next post, I will try to present some of my ideas on what a new economic model should include.
- V Yonkers
- Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.