The college degree is losing its shine right in the heart of the country that claims some of the best colleges in the world. Five American states — Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Alaska and Utah — have now dropped the requirement of a four-year college degree for most government jobs. The immediate trigger is no doubt the tight labour market. But as college tuition continues to rise and their enrolments continue to decline, opinion polls repeatedly reveal falling public faith and support for traditional higher education.
What Peter Drucker called the knowledge economy seems not to be working quite as well as when the term was doing popular rounds in the second half of the 20th century. Even so, the erosion of faith in traditional colleges in the United States of America remains a localised phenomenon. It does not necessarily indicate a loss of faith in higher education per se, just in its traditional method and venue of delivery. The knowledge worker most likely to continue being relevant is still someone immersed in knowledge, just capable of coursing through its rapidly changing waters through an entire lifetime rather than bearing an early, immutable stamp. Lifelong learning, that great liberal humanist expression, is now a corporate catchphrase owned by organisers of distance, continuing, and (the particularly lucrative) executive education. And with pandemic-accelerated logistical support behind, and the ongoing and impending wave of Artificial Intelligence right ahead, the giant called educational technology has expanded its reach to engulf much of that life of long learning. Certainly enough for the newsmagazine, Inside Higher Ed, to describe a recent crucial gathering of tech and finance business leaders at MIT as the “oncoming AI Ed-Tech tsunami”.
The onset of the tsunami is being particularly felt in post-industrial island states where the key resource is people. At 275 square miles and home to 5.4 million people, Singapore knows well what its key strength is — human capital. “The only thing Singapore has,” Gan Chee Lip, associate provost for undergraduate education at Nanyang Technological University, recently told the Times Higher Education, “without natural resources, is people.” It is natural that Singapore has taken lifelong learning more seriously than most other countries because without a future-ready workforce it will quickly lose its edge in the global economy. The SkillsFuture programme was introduced by the Singapore government in 2014, with the motto, “Develop Our People”. With the goal of providing Singaporeans with “opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout life,” it gives every citizen aged 25 or older S$500 of credit that they can spend on further education or training. The programme has gained traction in the corporate world as it does not necessarily require employees to commit to a full-length academic programme but space out the learning as and when necessary. Universities have followed, with the National University of Singapore making the striking announcement in 2018 that all its alums will stay enrolled in the university for 20 years from admission, making its 300,000+ alums automatically eligible for its 700-odd continuing education courses, to which they can apply their government subsidies.
Innovative US institutions have been experimenting with the ‘fragmented’ college model for some time now. The Design School at Stanford initiated a six-year undergraduate degree a few years ago, which could be taken in instalments of two years each in different decades of one’s life. It is not quite clear what the success of that initiative has been, but what is clear is that the traditional model of college education is under significant pressure in the US, not just from unsympathetic politicians and an increasingly disinterested public but also from the rapid decline in numbers of college-age students, which is projected to reach a major crisis in 2025. Which, incidentally, means that these colleges will be more eager than ever to welcome fee-paying international students, particularly from Asia, from where applications continue to rise.
That the bachelor’s degree is being stretched and pushed in different directions is clear from its new incarnation in India’s National Education Policy, 2020. As we know by now, it offers four versions of undergraduate certification, attainable at the end of each of the first, second, third, and fourth years. This is a significant departure from the examination-driven, three-year structure that was the colonial inheritance of Indian universities from the University of London model. While the relevance of undergraduate research is acknowledged in the expanded, four-year degree, a productive fragmentation of this education seems to be the goal behind the early exit policies, with credits bankable and transferrable through the Academic Bank of Credit. The NEP seems torn between — sometimes productively and sometimes not so productively — the liberal, the professional, and the vocational — and the pluralisation of the undergraduate degree reflects this, to a similarly mixed effect.
But it is impossible to talk about the fragmentation, diminution or, for that matter, the obsolescence or lifelong expansion of the college degree without considering what this means for social mobility, particularly for those who need it the most. This was, indeed, the caveat behind Drucker’s knowledge society — the loss of manufacturing jobs to venues overseas, he had argued, would render the American unskilled worker jobless — as it did across the Rust Belt across the Midwest. The NEP committee, now working on the National Curriculum Framework, recently asked me to provide a brief definition of ‘knowledge’ that could be used to frame the policy discussion, and while trying to think of something that would be as expansive as it would be pluralistic — a sore need of the hour — I realised anew the porousness and amorphousness of the term, whether at the secondary or the post-secondary stage. And it is a problem of practice, not just philosophy. Knowledge and skill are just elements of the educational experience, and the college degree offers the making of a cohort, a community, and socio-professional networks that may just return to the exclusive possession of the born-elite if eroded beyond recognition. The biggest risk of the early-exit undergraduate degree is the early exit of the poorest college student.
Saikat Majumdar is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University