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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 21, May 25, 2024

Political Economy of Mass Higher Education: A Warning Call | Arup Maharatna

Saturday 25 May 2024, by Arup Maharatna


Unlike terms like ‘mass/universal primary education’ or ‘higher education’ which have been in global vogue for at least three preceding centuries, ‘mass higher education’ is radically new and certainly a post-WWII notion. For example, global gross enrolment ratio in higher (or tertiary) education (HE) was only 10.1 per cent in 1972, but it jumped to well above 40 over next fifty years. Most people take this – so-called massification of HE - as a given (immutable) historical fact too welcome and sacrosanct to need an inquiry into its genesis/origin. But the latter, as we would argue, is highly necessary in trying to fathom and evaluate the current state of HE.

Amid WWII, UK’s government made plans for an ambitious programme of post-war ‘social reconstruction’ in which education would play an important part by achieving social equality through a ‘better system of education’ available equally to all. A committee was formed in April 1944 by the Minister of Education, with the task of assessing needs of higher technological education and respective contributions to be made by Universities and Technical Colleges in conformity with the ‘requirements of Industry’. Apart from its recommendations of substantial increases in teaching facilities and staff and full co-operation between industrialists and educators, it recommended creation of a National Council of Technology and Regional Advisory Councils which would be closely responsive to the needs of Industry.

Simultaneously and in similar vein, the American President in 1944 formed a committee which recommended rapid augmentation of flow of new scientific knowledge through ‘basic research’, the perceived key to future improvements in health, national security and economic prosperity. It thus recommended strengthening of colleges, universities and research centres through forging a triangular alliance of government, academia, and private corporations, with a view to achieving rapid development of both basic scientific knowledge as well as innovations, which directly feed into economic growth. In 1946 President Truman appointed a Commission on Higher Education of which report was published in six volumes in 1947 titled, Higher Education for American Democracy. The agenda of redefining HE/university is amply reflected in the following excerpt: ‘American colleges and universities .... can no longer consider themselves merely the instrument for producing an intellectual elite; they must become the means by which every citizen, youth, and adult is enabled and encouraged to carry his education, formal and informal, as far as his native capacities permit’.

Denouncing pre-existing HE system as ‘elitist’ or an ‘ivory tower’ and thereby emphasising rapid expansion of its access/participation, this Report heralded a concerted ‘call’ for a new HE system which would play a ‘social role’ in service of democracy, especially through its own democratization and wider participation facilitated by an appropriately amended and accommodative curriculum as well as new programmes of non-academic genre of human talent hitherto underserved in college curriculum. In the Report’s view, although recommended expansion of HE provision will be public-funded, but it will not be for occupational purposes, but rather for citizenship and for daily living with ‘transmission of a common cultural heritage toward a common citizenship’ – a type of education which, it is argued, cannot be overproduced in a democratic society. However much of these envisaged attitudinal/cultural transmissions via HE could be wasteful as they have traditionally (and historically) fallen within the purview of compulsory school education/curriculum. Similarly, there is a strong plausibility of a gradual dilution of overall academic standard as a fallout of growing induction of hordes of youths with low academic ability within a same campus, even though into non-academic programmes. The Report even harps on a necessity for an adequate adjustment between educational program and society and individuals whom it serves, ‘rather than any blind adherence to patterns and procedures established by tradition and the opinions of ivory-tower educators.’

All this reflects a brazen slur on HE/university’s age-old tradition/purpose of cultivating and nurturing esoteric/disinterested research/discovery of new knowledge and objective truth-seeking among naturally limited number of endowed/talented academic minds. On the contrary, it welcomes exclusive focus on ‘useful knowledge’ for economic growth at all graduate levels of HE, thereby undermining university’s long-standing role in advancement of basic knowledge and learning. Thus, the Report laid down a radical ideational footing and inspirations for subsequent rethinking, new theorizing, restructuring of HE into a promising industry itself. Around mid-1960s amid Cold-War John Kenneth Galbraith had found enough reason to warn the world against this pro-capitalist agenda of new HE system: ‘The college and university community must retain paramount authority for the education it provides and for the research it undertakes’; and ‘support for research and scholarship must be in accordance with some natural distribution of human curiosity and competence’.

In 1960s and 1970s a section of mainstream economics profession, most notably in the USA and UK, ventured to redefine central purpose/aim of education as lying in the production of what they called ‘human capital’ – a bundle of acquired productive skills which contribute both to macroeconomic growth and to individual upward economic mobility. Indeed, there were also radical intellectual endeavours with substantial benefaction of private corporate funding bodies as well as some multilateral agencies at demolishing (ideationally) the long-standing notion and rationale of HE as a public good, and thereby redefined it as a returns-yielding private commodity of which acquisition should ideally be contingent upon private investment rather public expenditure. This soon culminated into a concerted campaign for a laissez faire regime in HE with a view to achieving much touted holy goals of efficiency and freedom of choice. For example, in 1969 a joint working party of economic and education committees belonging to the Confederation of British Industry in UK laid down its objectives pertaining to HE as an industry, testifying amply to an active and growing interest of private industrialists in refashioning HE system, structure and its governance.

The radically new human capital paradigm of education born in 1960s led to an accumulation of theoretical and empirical body of apposite research output that shows inter alias, with its seductive elegance and precision of exposition, how expansion of HE is paramount and highly instrumental to achieving popularly avowed goal of economic growth. A substantial bulk these new economic theorisations, modelling and rigorous empirical validation exercises pertaining to economic importance of education at various levels for economic growth and international competitiveness was conducted, in large part, at the behest of both major multilateral agencies and a few private multinational foundations. And all this served as an ideational/ideological bedrock of persistent global expansion of HE reinforced by an ever-rising demand for degrees and diplomas both from aspirant youths as well as employers who recruit them, even though many adults with plenty of degrees/diplomas end up remaining unemployed – a malaise described aptly in 1970s as a ‘diploma disease’, which does not seem to have died down even today. Meanwhile global gross tertiary enrolment shot up from 6.5 million in 1950 to 84.3 million in 1996 and to 214.1 million in 2015, along with a much greater pace in the developing world.

While mainstream economics since 1960s built an elegant economic case for expansion and privatisation of HE, it was left largely to sociologists to explain the phenomenon of ever rising aspirations or demand for HE among youths. An American sociologist in a significant study in early 1970s, which was sponsored by a giant private funding organisation and patronised by UNESCO, offered a general explanation of steadily-rising demand of the youths for HE in terms an ‘insatiable appetite’ for social status and cultural capital (or ‘high culture’ in author’s own words) which ought to be fulfilled by what he called ‘popular functions’ of a university in addition its ‘autonomous’ academic functions. As American typical university’s tradition is allegedly ahead of the European university on this count of performing ‘popular functions’ of serving society and other institutions, the author recommends and envisions the emulation of American university’s tradition of performing ‘popular functions’, besides academic activities, everywhere towards reaching the stage of ‘universal HE’. This is particularly because so-called ‘high culture’ typically bestowed by HE/university is posited by him as a legitimate human right in a democratic polity, apart from the imperatives of affirmative action in HE for youths of historically deprived sections. But the question of why such ‘appetite’ for social status and cultural capital or economic mobility should have begun escalating only after WWII, not earlier over at least a century of western democracy, remains effectively bypassed by the advocates of massification of HE. Besides, as shown above, there has been a corporate ‘appetite’ for profit too which has played as a major driver of expansion of HE towards its mass/universal scale over post-WWII decades.

With UNESCO’s initiatives, an International Commission for Development of Education was established in 1970, which brought out in 1972 a Report which perhaps for the first time introduced a formal educational paradigm named Lifelong Learning. By 1970s there had been piles of official reports having one common theme, namely ‘planning for education throughout a citizen’s life’. And its ideational diffusion has been fairly fast. For instance, the Secretary of State for Education and Science in UK notes in 1977 thus: ‘The concept of continuing or recurrent education is gaining ground. Increasingly we realize that education and training cannot be met wholly in school and immediate post-school provision’.

Arguably, however, the idea of lifelong learning has always been implicit in traditional educational thinking over centuries. No one should have been disadvantaged or precluded by traditional curriculum/ideas/practices or so-called ‘once-for-all’ education in one’s bid to learn new useful things throughout life (without re-attending university/college). In one author’s words, ‘the very process of living and participating in any manner in the life of the community entails continuous learning’. Moreover, the purpose of formal education has hardly ever been to provide a fixed store of ‘knowledge’ to be used in course of one’s entire life. Instead, it has traditionally been to increase powers of mind, maturity, and various skills (technical or non-technical) to enable every student to learn and analyse new things throughout life. Actually, this mental preparation and maturity traditionally fall in the realm of basic school education. For instance, in 1981 the UK Govt’s Department of Education (Schools), while proposing curriculum changes, defines basic aim of education as follows: ‘to equip young people fully for adult and working life in a world which is changing very rapidly indeed in consequence of new technological developments.’

While world has been changing with technological progress over at least two preceding centuries, the need for mass HE has perhaps never been felt or invoked prior to post-war ascendency of neoliberal thinking. As written by Alison Wolf: ‘I find it difficult to construct a convincing argument that more …degrees are needed so that people will be educated enough to stack shelves, swipe credit cards, or operate a cappuccino machine effectively. In wake of these current seemingly ‘new’ ideas/expressions least informed by the long history of education, the aim/role of HE/university is getting redefined as mere, in one author’s words, ‘acquisition of spurious and fictitious “skills” (such as telephone skills, communication skills, information skills and even, I believe, life skills)’.

In 1995, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a private philanthropic body, agreed to support a multi-year national commission, named Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities, which in its fourth Report in 1999 entitled Returning to Our Roots: A Learning Society defines the role of public university as being one that ‘increasingly recognizes the need for perpetual learning throughout life’. The key recommendations include the making of ‘lifelong learning’ a part of ‘our core public mission’ and ‘public support’ and ‘new kinds of learning environments’ (e.g. use of technology in teaching).

A formal official recognition of ‘lifelong-learning’ by UK Govt. was made in 1996 when it commissioned a National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education of which Report, published in 1997, propounds its vision thus: ‘In the next century, the economically successful nations will be those which become learning societies: where all are committed, through effective education and training, to lifelong learning’. By referring to recent mainstream economics literature, the Report also forges its strong advocacy of a ‘new compact between higher education, the state, students and employers’.

Thus, the Committee and UK Government emphasise inter alias the targeting of funds to ‘economically advantageous investments’ such as Higher Education-out to Business and Community Fund and Higher Education Innovation Fund, which are, to borrow one author’s words, ‘all to develop the capability of higher education to respond to the needs of business.’ A politically indulged subservience of HE to the interests of private corporate players advocated since WWII gets more formally baptised and legislated by the UK government after the release of the report of a review panel led by Lord Browne of Madingley, which is entitled The Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance Report and released in October 2010, defines the essence of HE as lying in ‘a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e. universities)’, with its radical recommendation of ‘almost complete withdrawal of the annual block grant that government makes to universities to underwrite their teaching’.

A policy of upskilling of workforce through HE/university reflects, as an author remarks, a consensus/support from politicians, policy-makers, trade unionists, educationists and economists, and is often viewed as ‘social control, which treats lifelong learning not as a self‐evident good but as contested terrain between employers, unions and the state’. Similarly, another author has, more recently, notes: ‘..the capitalistic notion of lifelong learning has been the main strategy of OECD and EU countries’.. [for which] ‘lifelong learning is a tool for achieving economic growth and global competitiveness’. That the educational policies of most western nations are being restructured in accordance with patterns of market demand is fairly well-known now.

The ostensibly new concepts or redefinition/restructuring of HE/university since WWII/onset of Cold War have been in consonance with a key mission of making education increasingly acquiescent of pro-capitalist thinking centred around free-market enterprise and corporate interests in swelling demand for HE as a marketable commodity in different guises/pretexts. In 1985, the Margarette Thatcher government published the Jarratt Report, which openly stressed that “universities are first and foremost corporate enterprises”.

Thus, while the idea of breaking away from traditional thoughts and wisdoms on HE/university to build up a case for rapid expansion of access and provision of HE/university among ‘able’ youths emerged during and immediate aftermath of WWII in the USA and in UK, a mission of mass/universal HE as a right got mooted since early 1970s. No matter how ingenuous, methodically and logically impeccable, benevolent and pro-democratic have been theoretical arguments, ideas and evidence that were harnessed in defence of mass/universal HE, the business/market dimensions, corporate interests, international competitive edge and pro-capitalist underpinnings of an ever-expansionary HE as an industry/business have persistently been a major force. Indeed, a vision of persistent expansion towards mass/universal HE making it a vibrant industry leaves us haunted even today by a key pedagogical/pragmatic dilemma of how cohorts of vastly different levels of academic talents/abilities could be brought/taught together under a same standard/rigour of content/curriculum without either jeopardising the full flourishing of the naturally limited and intrinsically endowed/gifted minds or forcing large number of drop-outs and related frustration among lesser-ability cohorts. This question assumes added significance in contemporary times in which, for example, overall acceptance of applicants for admission to UK’s HE institutions in 1996-2001, as per a recent study, is found almost exponentially surpassing the respective estimated/expected levels calculated by applying the initial rate of acceptance in 1996. This shows a rapidly falling standard of entry requirements at UK universities – a fact which could not only bely post-WWII radically new rationale/vision about HE as a vehicle for social equity among all able/qualified school-leavers, but also its stated conviction that expansion of HE would not mean lowering of quality/standard/talent of ‘the best’.

It is, thus, scarcely surprising that if these ‘new’ or ‘novel’ ideas or democratic ideals and rights favouring ever widening spread of HE/university spur a process wherein education – curriculum, pedagogy, purpose – tends to become more vocationally-oriented and market-centric than purely academic and scholarly, so that there might emerge sooner or later both a declining trend in overall standard/quality of HE generally and hence an acute dearth of people who do, or can do, or wish to do, basic, original, inventive, truly creative and independent (passion-driven) research crucial, as is learnt from human history, for new breakthroughs and higher intellectual heights in diverse spheres – the hallmark of modern civilizational progression that had roughly began following the Enlightenment.

*Detail bibliographical references/information/facts or statements quoted/cited in the article are available in author’s recent monograph entitled Higher Education and Intellectual Retrogression: The Neoliberal Reign (London/New York: Routledge, 2023).

(Author: Arup Maharatna, Formerly Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor, Central University of Allahabad | Email: arupmaha[at]

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