In the midst of graduation season, Maxi Heitmayer ponders the changing nature of higher education – with the growing number of graduates, can higher education still be classed as elite?
A group of young adults wearing old-fashioned robes and funny hats with gleaming smiles on their faces. Maybe some Latin words sprinkled on top in a wood-panelled auditorium. Certainly, proud parents and large camera lenses. At graduation, the university shows itself, at its best, invoking ancient tropes of genius and the pursuit of knowledge as students are officially inducted into elite historical institutions. What we usually ignore is that these ceremonies take place in the thousands – every year. In 2016-17, universities in the United Kingdom alone, awarded 757,300 degrees. There is a steady increase in participation in tertiary education around the globe, and for the first time in 2017-18 more than half of the population aged 17 to 30 in the UK enrolled in university. In South Korea, the world’s leader in university participation, the figure is a staggering 67.8%.
That is a lot of funny hats.
These figures are reflective of the broader societal transformations under way: in times of Ikea, chain restaurants, and imminent robotisation, society just does not need as many carpenters, gardeners, and other workers in occupations requiring vocational training as before. Now, this is not meant to be derogatory of any of these professions – manual labour and artisanship retain relevance in a world of mass-produced things and will arguably become increasingly valuable. But as rustic furniture made from reclaimed wood, succulents, and lovingly hand-made, wabi-sabi ceramics have been appropriated by mainstream capitalism and moved from the avant-garde of cafés and artisan markets into chain restaurants and, via Ikea, to the homes of the middle class, it has become evident, once more, that the consumption preferences of the avant-garde do not suffice to feed masses of artisans, and the consumption preferences of the masses are met by machines.
The words ‘mass’ and ‘machine’ are crucial here, reminding us of Horkheimer and Adorno’s big societal question – what to do with people when the machines take over? They draw an unsettling picture where the majority of people is needed only as consumers: “Now that the livelihood of those still needed to operate the machines can be provided with a minimal part of the working time which the masters of society have at their disposal, the superfluous remainder, the overwhelming mass of the population […] are kept alive as an army of unemployed”.
is it still contemporary and useful to speak of university education as ‘higher’ or ‘elite’?
This vision is, of course, rather dystopian, and empirically, while less and less human labour is needed to produce subsistence and ‘things,’ we observe a rising demand for labour in the production of immaterial asset, which tends to require extensive theoretical training. Moreover, we also observe a universification of professions previously entered through vocational training due to changes in demands and role descriptions (nursing being a prime example). Following the tenets of enlightenment, the only response to the rise of the machines is to elevate the masses, and who else could be trusted with this task but the academy?
This brings us back to the funny hats. Universities still like to invoke imagery of the elite graduate, of higher qualification. Quite understandably so; this narrative is very effective at convincing parents to fork out large sums of money for their children, or students to take out loans for themselves. But with millions of graduates, and a majority of the age cohort attending university, is it still relevant and useful to speak of university education as ‘higher’ or ‘elite’? There are two notions taken for granted we need to question.
First, we need to question the notion of higher education. The narrative of selectivity and prestige creates a sense of gratefulness on the side of the student; gratefulness for being allowed to participate in such a privileged institution. In reality, society needs people to attend universities to perpetuate its existence and, having gone down the neo-liberal route, universities need ‘customers’ like any other business. Given that society and universities need young people to come and study (the OECD is already including increases in education levels in their projections), a narrative highlighting their entitlement to participate in the university and perhaps even of the duty to stay in education longer to participate in society may be more suited to attract and motivate prospective students than one of elitism and exclusivity, especially since universities are still struggling to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As we head towards a society where the majority of people will have participated in higher education, it is a healthier and more honest one in any case.
Second, we need to question the unitary nature of higher education. The university is a place where anyone can learn something about anything – and everyone comes out with the same qualification. This system essentially dates back to when the university was founded and provided training in medicine, philosophy, law, and divinity. Nowadays, there are thousands of different degrees to choose from, creating different trajectories that all follow in the footsteps of the same model of the early university.
Why do management students learn to write scientific articles and discuss papers in seminars, when they could be working in more applied settings? And why do philosophy students have to sit multiple-choice exams?
Is still warranted to give the same type of qualification to a musician, a mathematician, and a manager? While a straightforward case can be made about the signalling value of the level of qualification contained within a BA Philosophy and a BSc Physics, this comparability of level obscures the truly important question at hand, and that is one of the purpose of education, teaching, and examination. Why do management students learn to write scientific articles and discuss papers in seminars, when they could be working in more applied settings? And why do philosophy students have to sit multiple-choice exams?
Where thousands have graduated with the same educational qualification, we must ask the question about diversifying both the content and the methods of teaching as well as the methods of assessment; and we must figure out how these different trajectories can be reflected in the qualifications students receive – that is to say, what are the qualifications that come with a qualification?
rather than subjugating the university to the neoliberal logic and effectively reducing it to a selector of recruits for industry, we should emphasise its capacity to produce critical thought and critical thinkers
In this domain, the university has already lost much ground to for-profit producers of knowledge, and the part it is to play in our society does not seem fully decided yet. It is no surprise in times of the Teaching Excellence Framework and a neoliberal push for student consumer rights, that the academy leadership is trying to make the university experience homogenous and comparable.
And conveniently, employers are also much more willing to hire people who certifiably comply with an industry standard of subjectivisation for university graduates, which would warrant yet another foray into the writings of Adorno and Horkheimer. Conversely, I believe that rather than subjugating the university to the neoliberal logic and effectively reducing it to a selector of recruits for industry, we should emphasise its capacity to produce critical thought and critical thinkers.
At the end of the day, homogenisation of titles is fine, and perhaps even good when biologists, historians, and performance artists can meet on a level playing field – or nurses get the access and recognition they very much deserve. However, there needs to be a heterogenisation of the way we learn and teach at universities, not because there is the imminent danger of the university becoming the great big leveller, but because things are changing in our increasingly complex society. To stay relevant and fulfil one’s purpose, one has to adapt – especially at higher education institutions.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.