Opinionista Saliem Fakir 13 October 2016

Degrees of Obsolescence: In the techno age, a university education may be becoming a waste of time and money

The idea of the university may be an outdated model and may produce wasted years and youth – come decolonisation or no decolonisation.

In the past, a decent university education may have got you through life without further education, but today such notions of retiring your education quest after a degree will leave you less prosperous and if you did nothing in the area of self-education you will have reduced work opportunities and degradation of life skills.

In the era of the machine and the increased democratisation of knowledge through technology, there is both promise and peril. Access to knowledge is being flattened and beginning to challenge the thousand-year model of the esteemed university estate – our totem of higher learning and highbrow reputation that we are all cajoled to walk at one point in our life or the other.

Access to knowledge is getting cheaper and cheaper by the day as technology applications become more advanced. I may find a subject of interest on a MOOC video more explanatory and entertaining, by one of the best experts anywhere in the world, than going to a class and listening to my own professor, who may know his/her stuff, but is a poor communicator. Such opt-out choices exist without having to pay a heavy price for not attending a class.

While most economists tell us that as a country advances up the knowledge ladder we ought to become more prosperous as our human capital diversifies, we increase the spectrum of innovation that broadens value creation as new knowledge creates the opportunity to widen the economic base. But none can be sure that in the future the best way to gain this higher status of moving up the knowledge ladder is always the university and that it will be the right model to bridge the chasm of theoretical knowledge and reducing the experience gap that leads to practical knowledge which is the growing demand of public service, industry and economic logic.

If anything, the idea of the university may be an outdated model and may produce wasted years and youth – come  decolonisation or no decolonisation. The university in the future is more likely not to be the sole centre of learning activity but rather the processing of learning, as knowledge is growing so fast and the needs of the economy changing rapidly as we enter more and more the era of automation and robotics.

The latter advances are rendering many skills learnt at universities, colleges and training institutions obsolete or of reduced relevance as machines take-over routine and increasingly more and more sophisticated tasks once only capable of being done by humans.

Technology is increasing the pace of knowledge redundancy and to keep up students need more than university education.

What we should be striving for is not more universities but more internet access and bandwidth. In addition, specialised centres where theoretical and practical knowledge can be bridged to deal with problem of the experience gap. It is more likely that with great internet access, knowledge will be more democratised than the current university model which remain exclusive hubs of learning only accessible to those who have a government subsidy – or your parents are rich enough.

Universities may do little to serve a new type of economic logic that demands constant knowledge renewal and rapid ways to reduce the experience gap.

For sure universities should exist but their role in knowledge acquisition and creation needs be flattened. It is intuitive that a good student is not one that goes to university only, but rather one who has curiosity, is able to be autodidactic and, more fundamentally, as economic logic would want it, show the dexterity to apply basic reasoning, learning by doing competencies and analytical skills under different contexts and application needs.

Sometimes universities are just factories churning out people with credentials but not who can very rapidly take theoretical perspectives and turn this into reducing the experience gap, whether it is for the humanities or skills needed to serve specific sectors of our economy.

It is worth illustrating this point by way of our heated land debate and the relation between political and economic logic.

The history of land dispossession is a bitter one and continues to carry emotional currency till today and neither will it see its end tomorrow. Dispossession always involves a humiliation and disruption of a people’s way of being. In that sense, it is vested with a certain political logic.

What follows from political logic is an economic logic. Land and other natural endowments have these dual logics. One never just holds land and natural resources for worship but also to produce something of it.

Not only is land a place to grow food, but land was linked to tradition, community, and accumulation, whether it was cows or capital assets, as time went on. Land continues to be important for reasons of historical rectification; possession may offer wealth preservation as an investment, collateral or simply people continue to idealise a life of community, belonging and heritage that modern city life does not offer.

Land dispossession has not only disrupted inter-generational accumulation but also the knowledge and experience of using land. Land in the past was part of a dominant agricultural economy. Today, the size of the agricultural economy is a small share compared to the rest of the economy. While agriculture is important from the point of view of food security, jobs and exports, its relative importance to the rest of the economy is small. We can still get away by importing food if we had healthy exports from other sectors and a strong currency.

Land possession and economic progress are neither intertwined nor natural conclusions. A person, let’s say A, owning one hectare may be more prosperous than a person owning five hectares, let’s say B. There could be a lot of reasons why A is doing better than B. Let’s assume B is a new entrant who is keen to farm after just having received a settlement from the state.

What we do know for sure is that inter-generational transfer of tacit knowledge, through family or peers, plays an important role, and access to modern knowledge and technical know-how makes a difference. Improving farming competency through learning by doing, including farm level entrepreneurship, can differentiate one farmer from the other.

Countries that lead in agriculture try to do more with less. Knowledge, access to technology, economising with inputs, and government support in creating linkages to domestic and international markets are important ingredients of success. Knowledge of how this works on your farm is not gained from textbooks but experience. In real life, how fast you can narrow the experience gap is more likely to make one farmer more successful than the other.

In essence, modern agriculture is about how efficiently you are able to put together seamlessly hard capital and soft capital – hard capital being land, technology, finance and people, while soft capital involves reducing the experience gap through learning by doing, accessibility to new knowledge, research, skills upgrading and securing markets. Mindless land populism can often obscure the importance of the many factors that can make land work for people other than the fetish to own it and feel politically correct. Practical knowledge and experience is more valuable to a landowner than land itself.

What is true for agriculture is true for many other sectors.

While land may serve a political logic it does not imply it produces economic success for the holder. The same is true about graduating from university. While the #FeeMustFall movement has empathy given its political logic, nothing says that even with free education our universities will serve the economic logic and promise we may make out of a university education. And so it is that privileging a university education as the only means to achieving critical citizenship or economic opportunity is to fail to see the place of the university and the changing world of economy and technology.

For that matter, a little learning from university does not guarantee us decent jobs, a life time of employment in the age where machine power grows and where the pace of economic change is so fast that it breeds an endless need for self-education and skills upgrade. The challenge for the bricks and mortar university is finding ways to reduce costs and produce students who can quickly gain experience without losing quality.

In the end, #FeesMustFall’s battle to win free education may come through, but the debate on the future of the university has not entered our embattled totems of higher education. The university has a role to play in producing the good citizen but it may not be the only means to gaining education of practical value. As much as we must seek to find ways to finance free education for the poor we must also revisit the paradigm of the university. DM


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