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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 6, New Delhi, January 23, 2021

Is Standard of Higher Education Falling Under Neoliberalism? | Arup Maharatna

Friday 22 January 2021, by Arup Maharatna


Introduction and Background

That the Second World War (WWII) in its wake marked a watershed in the thinking and policy on higher education (HE) is perhaps not a commonplace especially among the younger generations. HE historically (roughly until WWII) used to mean specialized in-depth teaching/learning as well as academic research, driven by curiosity/interest/passion/thirst for new knowledge, conducted in colleges, universities and such other dedicated academic institutions. It is only after WWII that the very notion of HE began witnessing a dramatic transformation and brought economically productive, skill-centred, technical/vocational education/training institutions under its rubric — thanks to the galloping sway of a narrower view of education chiefly as an instrument of economic growth and prosperity both at individual and societal levels. Among several significant features of a steady transformation of HE landscape after the end of WWII, its rapid expansion encompassing ever-rising proportion of adult youth population across world is unmistakably most pervasive as well as distinctive in a historical perspective. [1] This rapid spread of post-secondary educational participation has been either implicitly or explicitly backed or complemented by at least two post-war ideational/ideological metamorphoses (vis-à-vis classical ideas/notions/practices) pertaining to the scope, purpose, functions and financing of HE.

The first relates to an attempted redefinition of chief purpose (and content/curricula by the same token) of education at all levels in conformity with its demonstrably direct and overwhelming role or contribution (via ‘human capital’ formation) to economic development and growth at macroeconomic level. As its corollary at micro/household level, education (especially at the post-secondary stage) began to be looked upon — in the main - as a bundle of productive or innovative skills (relevant to growth and international competitiveness) to be learnt at HE institutions including universities mostly through private expenditures/investments of respective parent/household. One far-reaching ideational implication of this (historically speaking) radical transformation of perceptions on education is that it began to be posited as a private commodity/service, despite a long preceding tradition of viewing HE as a public good/service. [2]

The second refers to the build-up of an ideational/intellectual case - largely in terms of perceptual, ideological and methodological predilections/assumptions of the mainstream neoclassical/neoliberal economics - for increasingly infusing private capital and its associated market-based mechanisms/motives into the provision of HE services, with a view to extricating the latter progressively from the age-old responsibility/commitment of state. These above ideational/ideological triumphs not just paved the way for nearly a flooding of for-profit private universities and other professional/vocational institutions across the world. Faced with a progressive withdrawal of public funds from HE-sector in both developed and developing countries, even globally renowned heritage-laden HE institutions/universities began embracing market forces for generating resources, and this process culminated into a regime of what is often labelled as academic capitalism, which typically breeds a growing competition among universities/colleges in attracting students as well as drastic cost-reducing measures/strategies. [3] All this is often found distinctively instrumental to many overt or latent compromises with pedagogical/academic quality, rigour and standard across entire HE spectrum. [4] Neoliberal reforms of HE, implemented through radical changes in educational policies, programmes and public expenditures, are geared toward making governments cut down or minimise their financial commitments/responsibilities on HE. HE institutions are thereby forced — directly or indirectly — to take recourse to various market-mechanisms for generating necessary resources while having to fend for themselves.

In this process the old academic discipline of education and most of its specialist experts and professionals generally find themselves playing a role of unquestioning receivers and practitioners of sweeping HE reforms and policies in the neoliberal lines of thinking. These radical pro-market educational reforms — in pedagogical and financial spheres - often serve as a wholesome fodder for piles of narratives, commentaries and cautious and ritualistic criticisms through medias, monographs and academic journals. [5] With this as backdrop the present paper embarks on a critical review of relevant research/literature on the concomitant trends in academic quality, standard, skills and rigour acquired by successive cohorts who have received HE over post-war decades. An overall (global) trend of a steady deterioration of academic standard within HE in the wake of neoliberal policy/reform is conclusively observed.

Is Widespread Expansion of HE Necessary for Economic Growth?

Even from a narrow human-capital standpoint of educational expansion as a key to economic growth, a World Bank-sponsored study with cross-national data in the early 2000s brought out a clear global message that educational quality — even when narrowly measured in terms of cognitive skills acquired only in mathematics/science among workforce — is more important than its expansion (in terms of enrolment/quantity). [6] Indeed the mounting euphoria since the 1960s over a key role of human-capital formation in economic growth received serious jolt around the early 2000s. For example, a few intensive studies have brought out convincing cross-national evidence of a glaring dissonance, namely between rapid educational expansion (so-called human-capital formation) and its estimated growth impact (e.g. on output per worker). [7] In fact, as powerfully argued by Alison Wolf, it is the growth of income/wealth that evidently results in expansion of access to HE, rather than the latter as such causing economic growth. [8] The net impact of overall educational expansion on productivity or income per worker at macro level is found rather ‘disappointing’ across countries, with some cases showing even a negative association depending on historical, socio-political, institutional specificities.

Among several plausible explanations for (globally evident) failure of expanding HE provisions to translate itself into productivity increase/economic growth, the diversion of the bulk of newly acquired skills towards privately-rewarding but socially-wasteful (and sometimes even socially counterproductive) activities as well as deterioration of quality/content of education in terms of acquired cognitive skills loom many countries. [9] In a recent theoretical analysis, Miroslav Beblav′y et al. have shown ‘how the expansion of HE could be associated with several factors that indicate a decrease in the quality of degrees’. [10] The major underlying reasons/mechanisms for such an outcome allegedly include universities’ incentives to increase student-body ‘beyond a level where they can keep their academic requirements high’, employers’ incentive to award wage to those with higher qualifications/ranks, and concomitantly students’ rush for acquiring ‘degrees’ in response to employers’ such preferences along with increasing social value placed on ‘degrees’. This seems consistent inter alias with oft-reported phenomenal crave for ‘educational credentials’ (distinct from tangible human-skill formation) pervasively perceived crucial for upward social mobility, which generally calls for an emphasis on ‘individual status attainment rather than the production of human capital’. [11] Moreover there is growing evidence that the quality/standard of education/learning in schools is falling perceptively over a few past decades across the world. [12] This should also have serious adverse cascading implications for the quality/standard of HE.

For example, Alison Wolf has exposed that a large part of increases in educational provisions (expenditure) and related inflation of HE qualifications/credentials is found superfluous for publicly cherished (and heavily touted) goal of economic growth, leading to a phenomenon of ‘over-education’. [13] On the contrary, as Wolf adds, the focus on education as an ‘engine of economic growth...narrowed the way we think about social policy. It has also narrowed — dismally and progressively — our vision of education itself.” [14] Also, there has been a growing body of country-level evidence, apprehension, and perceived alarm about a declining trend in standard and quality of general academic skills, aptitudes, and knowledge acquired through college education. [15] Indeed alarmist media reports on falling standard of HE have been pouring in over the recent past - a potentially grave trend to which we would turn in the following sections. [16]

Declining Levels of Academic Effort and Critical Thinking of College Students: 
An Unmixed Gloom?  

There has been a mounting number of books ventilating a thickening air of frustration, disappointment and alarm over steady declines in quality, academic standard and ‘intellectual powers of mind’ among recipients of HE degrees/credentials since the 1970s. Ronald Dore’s 1976 book, The Diploma Disease, can perhaps be taken to be a good starting-point while portraying an account of the ever-deepening malice of HE. [17] Ronald Dore attributes several grave consequences (e.g. ‘exam-oriented learning’, ‘ritualisation of learning process’ and ‘deformation of minds/characters of the ‘‘successful’’) of the ‘qualification escalation’ in job markets to what he calls ‘bureaucratisation of economic life’ responsible for making ‘more and more universal’ the selection for jobs/career by educational qualifications — a pervasive practice feeding on an ‘overproduction of job-seekers (educated unemployment)’. [18]

About a decade later Allan Bloom’s 1987 best-seller The Closing of the American Mind has drawn attention to the professed undermining — through academically diluted curriculum/pedagogy - of the faculties of critical thinking/reasoning at US universities and colleges infected by a newly pervasive conviction that truth is relative and therefore exercise, effort, and engagement in the build-up of intellectual debates or points of view are generally pointless, if not wasteful. As the university’s official stance is one of appearing ‘neutral as regards man, nature, God, and again the good, the true and the beautiful’, the big questions are not even raised, thereby closing, as Bloom says, the American mind. [19] The voice of this genre pointing to intellectual/ideational enfeeblement over post-war period has subsequently been raised by a very few other concerned scholars and educationists. [20]

In 1999 George Kuh in a celebrated paper presents evidence from an important study based, as it were, on a temporal comparison of several features such as quality of schooling experience, efforts, and performance of different cohorts of American undergraduate students between 1960s and 1990s. [21] As revealed by this study, the proportion of students, who reported substantial progress in many areas traditionally considered as a domain of general education (e.g. appreciation/understanding of literature, arts, science, values development) has declined,while an extensive fraction of students (more than half to four-fifths) are found to have made substantial progress in those areas considered vital to living a self-sufficient, civically responsible, and economically productive life after college, namely intellectual and communication skills, personal and social development skills and vocational training. Compared to the counterparts of the previous decade, students of the 1990s, overall, are found to be devoting considerably less effort to activities related directly to learning. More ominously, despite distinct record of lower levels of effort put in by students of 1990s, they happen to have scored higher grades than those garnered by their older counterparts. Indeed there have been steady increases in the fraction of college students reporting B+ or higher grades over time since the 1960s, pointing clearly to grade inflation and an increasing readiness on the part of academics for compromises with standard/quality of learning. These trends have been valid across all institutional types, though in some instances the magnitudes differ slightly. Although one could point to a subtle technical snag of this study as it is not based on longitudinal data of same colleges at different points in time, the major conclusions of this study are reasonably robust and found perfectly consistent with those of other methodically rigorous studies so far conducted.

In fact, a considerable amount of evidence/literature has since emerged to pinpoint similar trends and concerns. For example, in a powerful exposition, David Kirp in 2004 has shown how in course of flourishing dominance of market ideology and neoliberal reforms in HE an English department is turned into a revenue centre; how teachers grade students as "customers" they must please; how industries dictate a university’s research agenda; how business values, namely efficiency, immediate practical usefulness, and marketplace triumph emerge as the best measures of a university’s success; how taxpayer-supported academic research is turned into profitable patents; and how the liberal arts shrink under the pressure to be self-supporting. [22] Almost simultaneously a collection of essays edited and entitled Declining By Degrees: Higher Education at Risk published in 2005 examines several aspects of actual learning in HE institutions of the USA and reveals obtrusive signs of declines in standard and quality of educational content and skills imparted over time.

In 2007 Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, on the basis of pooling of a wide range of datasets from multiple sources over a span of thirty years starting from the 1960s, brought out a highly serious revelation pertaining to temporal trends in time-use patterns of college students across the USA. [23] As revealed by this study, full-time college students in 1961 had reported an average of 40 hours per week devoted to class and studying across America, whereas their counterpart cohort in 2003 appears to have invested only about 23-26 hours per week, irrespective of race, gender, ability, family background, courses, employment status, college type. This robust finding of secular declines in students’ time allocation to academic activity since the 1960s — or what is branded as ‘falling time cost of college’ in economics parlance — certainly deserves serious academic attention and detailed systematic research into its causes and real underlying processes. For example, an essay captioned ‘Is College Too Easy? As study time falls, debate rises’ in the Washington Post in May 2012, which referred inter alias to findings of Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks’ study, and which, on the basis of (informal) interviews, portrayed a reality of increasing dilution of study-load/curricula as well as exam/marking-methods and hence of the quantum of cognitive learning/knowledge imparted at colleges. The article however leaves its readers confused (or doubtful) about the graveness, as it simultaneously referred to (casual) refutations of this worrying state by a few others the author interviewed. [24]

Of course, there could arguably be ‘alibies’ imagined for undermining implied graveness of such blatantly gloomy research findings. For instance, one hypothesis behind declining study-time could be typically economic one of technological improvements leading to persistent fall in time requirements of learning/educational processes (namely, the use of word-processors makes term-paper preparation less time-intensive now than earlier). However, such technology—mediated economy on learners’ academic time/effort could have been reasonably offset by added academic pressure in handling much greater bulk of available and accessible information, knowledge, and literature in respective fields now than previously. Conversely, academic time, thus saved due to improved technology, could be ploughed back into other forms of academic/intellectual efforts and activity (e.g. reading, thinking, analysing, discussing) that are relatively immune to technology improvements, but have great potential for improving academic worth (perhaps not exactly in the sense of higher scores in examination) and standard of intellectual skills/output. But this does not seem to have happened generally.

College administrations often, admittedly in an apologetic vein, attribute the statistical revelation of declining study-time of students to their choice of ‘majors’. An analysis of 85 majors (undertaken by ‘the director of student engagement survey’) reveals a 13-hour spread in the average weekly study time among all majors, with architecture students found studying the most at 24 hours a week. Therefore, his conclusion is: ‘Every one of these colleges has some students who are studying quite a bit and, to balance things out, some students who are studying very, very little.’ [25] However, the bottom-line that emerges seems pretty robust, namely that the ‘norm’ of academic effort itself is falling drastically. For example, as per National Survey of Student Engagement, an annual survey instrument, the American post-secondary students are found to spend as few as 14 hours a week on their studies in comparison with what was the norm of 20-30 hours just a few decades earlier. [26]

In this context, a more plausible hypothesis, akin to what is suggested by David Kirp, could be an accentuation of competition among colleges/institutions for attracting students who as rational consumers of ‘edu-care’ would be keen to acquire job-fetching degrees/certificates at a comparatively lower ‘price’ charged not exactly in terms of money but efforts, pangs, and pains associated with processes of academic learning. [27] In this vein the majority of students would look for more ‘student-friendly’ curriculum that would enable them to have a greater provision for leisure and entertainment. While this may add to what is being loosely called ‘educational or campus experience’, this must take a toll on quantum/level of students’ skills and academic aptitudes actually learnt and acquired, without commensurate reflections on grades/marks as per recorded scores in testimonials. Indeed such an apparent paradox of better scores/results going hand-in-hand with declining standard is often being reported in the context of current overall educational scenario. [28] Reviewing reports of various small-scale surveys among several HE institutions mainly in UK, David Green, Anastasia de Waal and Ben Cackett concluded thus about fifteen years back:

‘there is growing evidence that students are being awarded top class degrees without reaching the standards expected; that many academics are feeling pressurised into awarding such good marks and passing undeserving students, and that students are starting university ill-prepared for degree level study’. [29]

A few other forces at work toward an inflation of student’s grades/marks have been pointed out in recent literature. As faculty promotion or tenure is, in many cases, made contingent on reports of periodic teacher-evaluations by students, who as ‘rational’ (self-maximising) consumers of ‘edu-care’ should feel they are best served by the teachers most lenient on giving them good grades and marks, it induces a built-in tendency among faculty to keep students in good humour by giving marks well above what are actually deserved. [30] In a recent Indian study Manabi Majumdar and J. Mooij have reported an educational regime marked by decaying academic/learning standard and increasing social inequality because of what they call ‘marks race’, wherein parents, teachers and students alike are much too concerned (often nearly obsessed) about how students can score high marks/grades in tests, no matter if, in the process, the rote learning pervades the educational system, and the students end up acquiring less of durable cognitive, creative, intellectual skills and academic aptitudes. [31] This obviously leads to a growing mismatch between marks/grades recorded on testimonials and levels of academic skills/aptitudes actually acquired. Consequently, employers are often being found grumbling that degrees/grades or scores of current generations of employees dot not generally match employers’ expectations about former’s demonstrated/actual levels of skills/expertise, which generally determine their so-called ‘employability’. Such uncomfortable outcome in educational institutions is often (at least partly) attributed to an in-built pressure (tacit/overt) put by college-administration on its faculty to ensure that students do not generally get low marks/grades, as dominant perceptions and practices tend to award high ranks to institutions with a record of relatively large number of students having secured good grades/scores. All this, in combination with a revenue-friendly generous admission policy, cannot but end up lowering standard and real worth of degrees and grades in terms of knowledge/skills actually learnt or acquired — let alone real qualitative attributes of intelligent, articulate and responsible citizens. [32]

In a more recent rigorous study on standard/quantum of undergraduates’ learning of basic academic skills, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have utilized transcript data, survey responses, and results from Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA, a standardized test taken by students in their first semester and at the end of their second year) in a sample of US’s colleges of varying pedigree in an effort to ascertain the proportion of undergraduate students who have registered a real improvement (or its absence) over their initial levels of basic academic skills and aptitudes. [33] This study reaffirms the worrisome message of a falling educational skills and standard imparted to cohorts of students over time: as many as 36 per cent of undergraduates in the sample did not show any statistically significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication over four years of post-secondary academic programme. The ‘limited learning’ observed in terms of stagnant CLA performance tallies well with first-hand accounts of many students, who report: a) spending increasing number of hours on non-academic activities, including working for income, rather than on studying; b) opting out from courses that require substantial reading or writing assignments; c) interacting with their professors outside classrooms rarely, if at all; and d) finding college experiences focused more on social than on academic development. Moreover, the study also finds HE being characterised by ‘persistent and/or growing inequality’ in terms of scores in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills between diverse groups of students by family background and/or racial/ethnic identities. Students do enter college, not surprisingly, with unequal demonstrated abilities, but these initial inequalities persist—or, in case of African-American students relative to white counterparts, increase - in course of HE. As a fallout, corporate leaders in USA private sector appear, of course, dissatisfied with the quality of U.S. undergraduate education, since more than 90 percent of employers rate written communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving as “very important” for job-success of new labour market aspirants. In fact, as per their observations, only a small proportion of four-year college graduates excel in these skills, namely 16 percent in written communication and 28 percent in critical thinking/problem-solving. In another recent survey, commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, ‘employers rated only 26 percent of college graduates as being very well prepared in writing, and 22 percent as being very well prepared to think critically’. [34]

Interestingly, however, the authors of this study do not view this reality of a large and growing number of ‘academically adrift’ youths (with limited learning) churned out by HE system as its ‘crisis’, ‘because institutional and system-level organizational survival is not being threatened in any significant way’ or ‘the institutional actors implicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes that they seek’. [35] They see this phenomenon as a ‘social problem’ which, they think, cannot be remedied quickly and ‘without some form of exogenous shock to the system’, as the US educational history is marked by periodic shocks having revamped its educational system, the Sputnik launch of 1957 being one prominent illustration. Such identifying of a list of proximate factors (sometimes almost indistinguishable from symptoms themselves) behind falling standard/quality of undergraduate learning, without delving deep into its ideational or paradigmatic or pedagogical genesis, is not very rare in the existing USA literature. [36] Alas, this grave phenomenon of falling, or already far fallen, standard/quality in HE appears to have, meanwhile, become nearly global and hence deserves more generalizable and paradigmatic analysis and reforms. Indeed, there is a growing, albeit scattered, body of evidence/indications as well as media-reports that point unambiguously to a phenomenon of decaying quality/standard of HE/university in many European, African and Asian countries, with deeply grave (potential) implications for economy and society at large.

It is, however, lamentable that systematic academic studies, as reported above on the trends in quality/standard of undergraduate learning in the USA - not just in terms of grades or earnings in job-market, but in terms of students’ allocated time and efforts, acquired academic skills/abilities — are relatively rarely being conducted in other continents/countries. Even in the USA the post-war trends in standard/quality of post-graduate education and research are yet to be systematically unravelled and fully grappled with. A few studies that have, of late, attempted at gauging quality/standard of HE in UK are mostly taking degree-holders’ earnings/pecuniary-returns in labour market as its only proxy index, and are unsurprisingly coming up with rather self-congratulatory conclusions on academic standard/quality of HE education. [37] However, in a very recent informative essay published in 2019 in the NewStatesman, Harry Lambert provides us with a first-hand or field view that flags perceptible declines in quality/standard of HE degrees across the UK universities beginning at least since 1990 — i.e. a time span when the country’s HE-enrolment has registered five-fold increases. [38]

In this journalistic essay, Harry Lambert, who finds this ‘paradox’ ‘simpler than it seems’, summarily singles out the cause as lying in the absence of government’s ‘incentives’ or ‘mandates’ to universities to provide ‘a baseline of quality education’. This almost certainly reflects an imprint of neoliberal line of (economistic) thinking on a suggested solution to what are intrinsically pedagogical and ideational issues too delicate to deal with in terms of economic/market instruments. Indeed, T-shirts of student protestors at rallies especially in European countries are sometimes seen with a printed missive: ‘You can lead me to college, but you cannot make me think’ — a profound universal wisdom which neoliberal (economistic) line of thinking on education has sought to undermine. The process of improving educational quality/standard (that involves inter alias such innate things as minds, intellect, imaginativeness, creativity) is inherently far different and difficult from the way an industry, or a government, seeks to ensure qualitative improvements of manufactured products like computer or printer or a war-weapon as well as workers’ discipline or work-efficiency.

Deteriorating Standard and Rigour of Basic/Original Research 

Influential academics or management experts or bureaucracy, who have been close to political power/administration and been entrusted during preceding half a century, with key role of presiding over high-profiled commissions and committees to recommend about future directions of HE, have typically tended to assume (often naively) that the highest level of HE, namely graduate/post-graduate basic research conducted generally by top-calibre, highly talented, high-paid academics, would remain uninfected by pervasive declines in undergraduate (academic) standard/quality following its ‘massification’. For example, it is quite reasonable to be apprehensive of whether an indiscriminating imposition of an economic orientation/motif among all HE participants (e.g. in terms of economic utility or relevance) in a context of its rapid expansion/participation would dampen those intellectually superior minds who generally cherish to raise, nurture and pursue abstract and imaginative questions/thoughts out of intellectual passions, curiosity and associated joy, the mainspring of academic creativity/originality and inventiveness. However, the Robbins Report’s view on this plausible trepidation about future standard/quality of HE arguably bypasses this unease with a sheer gesture of ‘well-wishing’ reflected as follows: [39]

Equality of opportunity for all need not mean imposing limitations on some. To limit the progress of the best is inevitably to lower the standard of the average. A sound educational system should afford full scope for all types of talent at all levels.

Alas, of late, evidence, apprehensions and alarms are escalating in regard with perceptible declines in quantum, quality and standard/rigour of basic or original research output/inventions especially in science and engineering. For example, Edward R. Dougherty in a recent article published in American Affairs has pointed to relevant evidence and indications of a falling trend in quality and standard of American fundamental research in science and engineering over last several decades. [40] More significantly, the genesis of this long-term academic decay is attributed squarely to faulty perceptions and erroneous ideas of administration (since the late 1960s) such as ‘turning its back on the conceptual framework underlying three centuries of modern science, from Isaac Newton’s Principia in 1687 through the extraordinary achievements of the first three quarters of the twentieth century’. These ideational aberrations, it is argued, paved the way for ‘an alarming deterioration in the quality of mathematical education’ and promoting ‘the uncritical growth of a literature in which quantity and formal novelty were often prized over significance and attention to scholarship’.

Another policy reform in the lines with neoliberal thinking that is often held to be instrumental behind observed declining trend in quality/standard of basic research output over past several years relates to a steady reduction of state expenditure on basic/fundamental research. As reported by Walter Isaacson recently in the case of USA: ‘In the 1960s, around 70 percent of total R & D was federally funded, with 30 percent coming from the private sector. Now those figures are reversed.’ [41] While some of this decline in federal funding is replaced by an increase in corporate research, especially in sectors (e.g. pharmaceuticals) where research can lead directly to marketable products, there is clear and mounting evidence to suggest that ‘American corporations are walking away from basic research as well’. [42] As a result, there has been a substantial reduction in basic scientific research that creates fundamental theoretical knowledge — sometimes called ‘seed corn’ - for tomorrow’s harvest in form of innovations and economic growth. And this decline in scientific investment in basic research and university labs in America is not a recent phenomenon, but federal funding for university research and state funding for higher education has been declining for almost twenty-five years. [43] A similar scenario of squeezing of state funding for fundamental research is recently reported to have been obtaining in Australia for preceding several years. [44] And the UK’s position has been not only hovering around the bottom among G8 countries in terms of state’s funds/expenditure on research as a percentage of GDP for past many years, but it has gone down drastically since 2010. [45]

Original academic research, inventions and new knowledge and cultivation of new ideas/insights are increasingly threatened by declining trends in state (and private) expenditures on basic research in USA and elsewhere. [46] For example, its one far-reaching ramification often takes the form of what is called ‘rampant administrative blight’ generated in universities by adding layers of administrators and staffers to their payrolls, who, powerful but bereft of serious academic backgrounds, tend to advocate and implement banal ‘life skills’ curriculum and thereby contribute to lowering of intellectual rigour of academe. [47] Indeed what has emerged as a pretty robust finding of recent economic researches is one of declining ‘productivity of research’ - defined as units of successful research outcomes/products (e.g. patent or drug or new computer chip) per unit of research effort/input (e.g. researchers, other expenditures like lab) - over about half a century in most of the leading industries such as computer chip or semiconductors, pharmaceuticals. [48] One received explanation in economics literature attributes the observed declining research-productivity to increasing ‘burden of knowledge’, since ‘knowledge accumulates as technology advances’. The alleged logic is that since researchers (e.g. scientists and engineers) need to grasp larger and larger volume of accumulated knowledge in respective fields, they take longer and longer and more of other resources (e.g. increasing necessity of team-work of different specialist/experts) with the passage of time to reach the frontiers of knowledge in search of new ideas in each field. [49] In fact economists have been pointing out since the late 1990s that researchers’ growing (relative) difficulty of finding new ‘ideas’ is posing as a major stumbling block to keeping up a steady pace of innovations and hence private investment and economic growth.

More lately, economic researches have made it clear that since ‘ideas’ are ‘getting harder to find’ in case of individual firms, it is even more imperative for the state to keep up, or even increase, public spending/funds on ‘basic research’ to facilitate reasonable flow of new ‘ideas’, which are typically ‘nonrival’ (i.e. public goods) and hence can be used simultaneously by many people and thereby can neutralize adverse effects of declining research productivity on aggregate economy or on its exponential growth. [50] In conformity with characteristic predilection of mainstream economics to deal only with quantifiable concepts or variables, the ‘production’ of new ideas is being thought to crucially depend on the number of available scientists/researchers (defined as human capital) on an alleged ground of a prominent thesis suggesting that in human history the higher growth rate or high-density of populations generally acted as a key catalyst inducing more rapid technological-innovations/productivity-increases than in sparsely-populated areas. [51] Indeed a section of mainstream economics profession even went to the (admittedly nebulous) point of stating that if the world population size would have been larger many a times in the historical past, the world would have been supplied with ‘more Mozarts and Newtons’, [52] an argument, which utterly contradicts an extreme rarity of Nobel prize-winners from the most densely populated regions of world, or which seemingly dares to defy a rich educational insight or wisdom, namely, that Beethoven would have been only the world’s best ‘tom-tom beater’ if he were born and raised in jungles of Africa!

George Bernard Shaw once wrote: ‘Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will’. This perspective could, for example, matter quite significantly in our current grappling with the real clue to a recently observed predicament, namely that ‘ideas’ are getting ‘harder to find’ in the minds of fast-growing contingent of highly qualified contemporary scientists and technocrats. This could be (at least) partly because the latter have been increasingly exposed since childhood — thanks inter alias to radical transformation of curriculum/educational philosophy towards its ‘economic relevance’ or ‘utility’ at all levels of education over post-war neoliberal regime — to a reality of rapidly shrinking scope/value for spontaneous act/habit of imagining or for being curious and for raising critical/analytical questions. [53] Indeed, Dr. Vannevar Bush in his landmark 1945 Report to the US President had pointed to the crucial importance of ‘basic research’ (connected inextricably with new/original ideas), of which flourishing calls for almost total absence of ‘pressure’/distraction, especially one of haunting ‘thought of practical ends’ of research. [54] It is quite significant that about thirty-five years later (in 1980) Ronald Dore warned especially the advanced world with no less pertinent apprehension or concern over the long-term ramifications of the existing dominant neoliberal educational philosophy as follows: [55]

‘Is it really impossible to create schools without the goal of the bread-and-butter, certificate-seeking lifelessly instrumental motive for learning which, I persist in believing, is steadily eroding the quality of schooling throughout the world?’

Ironically, however, much (or perhaps most, except very few [56]) of the current analyses emanating from mainstream academics or non-academics on diagnosis into the malice of declining standard/quality of HE or its plausible remedy are of the same neoliberal genre entailed by its narrow economistic worldview, pecuniary mindset and related market-centred instruments such as economic incentives, cost and economic benefits, which from our foregoing analysis stand out to be foundational to the major evils gripping HE since WWII.


One key message that should have come out distinctly from the foregoing is that many more serious academic studies delving deep into neoliberal ideational shifts or swings and their wider ramifications with respect to notions/functions of academy, educational standard, cultivation/nurture of innate intellectual talents, aptitudes, the precious sense of commitment to the well-being of humanity are urgently imperative. Much of the rationale of the post-war HE reforms arguably rested far too long on the trope of electronic, digital, semi-conductor and micro-chip ‘revolutions’ in eluding the world with one key buzzword, namely ‘changing times’, which too often seems to serve as an ‘alibi’ for virtually rampaging age-old notions and spirit of academe and its underlying philosophy of civilizational progression. [57] It has thus become plain now that academics need to wake up to this momentous educational impasse (at least) before a great majority of them - ‘highly educated’ and soaked with neoliberal (economistic) educational philosophy, principles and precepts — lose intellectual objectivity, integrity, independence, innate creativity, imaginativeness, civilised sensitivity, or classical wisdom necessary to fathom the enormity of already happening global educational casualty as sketched above, let alone determining what is to be done or rather undone to overcome it. That is, well before only too few could remain capable to convincingly postulate to ‘the power’ one of the most powerful and perennial points pertaining to intrinsic characteristics of academe like this: ‘Musicians speak with pride of their music, not of its indirect benefits for GDP, and academics need to speak of their subjects with no less pride’. [58]

(Author: Arup Maharatna is Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor in Contemporary Studies
Central University of Allahabad, Prayagraj (India) | Email: arupmaha[at]

[1See e.g. Vincent Carpentier (2018), Expansion and differentiation in higher education: the historical trajectories of the UK, the USA and France, Working Paper No. 33, Centre for Global Higher Education, UCL Institute of Education, London; and Richard B. Freeman (2009), ‘What does global expansion of higher education mean for the US?’, Working Paper 14962, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge MA, USA (Accessed online from on 6 December 2020).

[2See e.g. Arup Maharatna (2014), ‘Invasion of Educational Universe By Neo-Liberal Economic Thinking: A civilizational casualty?’, Economic and Political Weekly, 49(37) and literature cited therein.

[3See Sheila Slaughter and Larry L. Leslie (1997), Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and Entrepreneurial University, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

[4See Arup Maharatna (2020), ‘The Anatomy and Price of an Ideational Conquest: On Steady Stifling of the Academe Since WWII’, SSRN (

[5See e.g. several relevant papers in J.B.G. Tilak (2018), Higher Education, Public Good and Markets, London: Routledge India.

[6Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Wößmann (2007), Education Quality and Economic Growth, World Bank, Washington DC.

[7L. Pritchett (2001), ‘Where has all the education gone?’, World Bank Economic Review, 15(3):367-391; E.N. Wolff (2000), ‘Human Capital Investment and Economic Growth: Exploring the Cross-Country Evidence’, Structural Change and Economic Dynamics, 11(4): 433-472; W. Easterly (2001), The Elusive Quest For Growth, Cambridge MA, MIT Press; Alison Wolf (2002), Does education matter? Myths about education and economic growth, London: Penguin Books.


[9L. Pritchett (2001), op. cit.

[10Miroslav Beblav′y, Mariya Teteryatnikova and Anna-Elisabeth Thum (2015), op. cit., p.1.

[11D.F. Labaree (1997), ‘Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals, American Educational Research Journal, 34(1), p. 51.

[12See e.g. Arup Maharatna (2018), chapter 4, op. cit. and the literature cited therein.

[13Alison Wolf (2002), op. cit.

[14Ibid., p. 254.

[15See e.g. D.F. Labaree (1997), op. cit., especially fn. 20 and references cited therein. See also Henry H. Bauer (1997), ‘The New Generations: Students Who Don’t Study’, (unpublished paper) Accessed online on 8 October 2020 from’t-study

[16E.g. B.K. Mishra (2019), “Falling” Standards of Education in Patna University Worry Academics’, The Times of India, December 26; Ellen Barczak (2019), ‘Beware of falling standards in higher education’, The Daily Illini, 29 April; I.A. Khan (2020), ‘Falling Standards’, The International News, 4 September’; India Today (2016), ‘Falling Standard of Higher Education Is Alarming: President’, January 18; The Economist (2012), ‘Higher Education: Not What It Used To Be’, 1 December; K. Yatish Rajwat (2017), ‘Higher Education has collapsed in India, We just don’t know it yet’, The First Post, January 6; Christian Smith (2018), ‘Higher education is drowning in BS’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9; Berek Bok (2017), ‘Improving the Quality of Education’, Inside Higher Education, September 21; Eleanor Busby (2019), ‘Quality of education in universities falling as institutions focus funds on marketing, NUS leader warns’, The Independent, 27 August; Richard Hersh and Richard Keeling (2018), ‘The Higher Education Learning Crisis’, Yale Global Online, November 22; Geoffrey Alderman (2010), ‘Why University Standards Have Fallen’, The Guardian, March 10, among others.

[17Ronald Dore (1976), The Diploma Disease: education, qualification and development, London: George Allen & Unwin.

[18Ronald Dore (1980), ‘The Diploma Disease Revisited’, In: J.C. P. Oxenham (Ed) (1980), Selection for Employment Versus Education, Sussex, Institute of Development Studies Bulletin Vol. 11, No.2: 55-61 (Accessed online on 3 November 2020 from

[19Don Asselin (1987) ‘Book Review: The Closing of the American Mind’, Grand Valley Review: 3(1) Available at:; p 86.

[20E.g. Martha C. Nussbaum (2009), ‘Education for Profit, Education for Freedom’, Liberal Education, 95(3); Martha C. Nussbaum (2010), Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[21George Kuh (1999), ‘How are we doing? Tracking the Quality of the Undergraduate Experience, 1960s to Present’, The Review of Higher Education, 22(2):99-120.

[22David. L. Kirp (2004), Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

[23Phillip Babcock and Mindy Marks (2007), ‘The falling time cost of college: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data (mimeo), Institute of Government Affairs, University of California, Davis (Accessed online). A slightly revised version of this paper was subsequently brought out as NBER Working Paper No. 15954, April 2010.

[24De Vise, D. (2012), ‘Is college too easy? As study time falls, debate rises’, The Washington Post, 21 May

[25Ibid. no page number.

[26A. Woodside (2011), ‘Challenging the Notion of Higher Education’ (Accessed online on 16 December 2017 from

[27David Kirp (2004), op. cit.

[28David Green, Anastasia de Waal and Ben Cackett (2005), ‘Education: Better results and declining standards? Online Briefing’ (Accessed online on 11 September 2020 from

[29Ibid., p. 17.

[30For instance, marks are often not deducted for poor and wrong grammar and spelling; Ibid, p.11.

[31Manabi Majumdar and J. Mooij (2012), ‘The Marks Race: India’s Dominant Education Regime and New Segmentation’ In: Christine Sleeter, Shashi Bhushan Upadhyay, Arvind K. Mishra & Sanjay Kumar (Eds): School Education, Pluralism and Marginality: Comparative Perspectives, New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan; see also Paul A. Trout (1997), ‘Disengaged students and the decline of American standards’, Academic Questions, Vol. 10: 46-56.

[32Several studies that exist or are being undertaken of late point to the similar educational trends in other developed and developing countries too (Pritchett 2013).

[33Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (2011), Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[34Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (2011), Ibid.

[35Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (2011a), ‘Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything? The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 January (Accessed online on 15 November 2013 from

[36For example, Derek Bok, the emeritus president of Harvard University, who published a book in 2006 titled Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They should Be Learning More (Princeton: Princeton University Press), concludes his analysis of underachieving colleges in following paraphrased words: ‘what is not currently working can be fixed if we are willing to do the hard work that is necessary’; see Abstract of Jeffrey Milem (2006), Book Review of Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges,The Review of Higher Education, 30(1). Accessed through ResearchGate. In fact, Derek Bok in his analysis has also referred to ‘countless studies’ that have found the overall college students having achieved ‘significant gains in critical thinking, general knowledge, moral reasoning, quantitative skills, and other competencies’; Ibid.

[37Arnaud Chevalier (2014), Does Higher Education Quality Matter in the UK?, IZA DP No. 8363, Royal Holloway University of London (Accessed online on 14 September 2020 from; Universities UK (2008), Quality and standards in UK universities: A guide to how the system works, London: Universities UK Accessed online on 14 September 2020 from

[38Harry Lambert (2019), HYPERLINK "" \t "_blank" Harry Lambert (2019), ‘The great university con: how the British degree lost its value’, The NewStatesman, 21 August (Accessed online on 14 September 2020 from, p. 5. A Steering Committee for Efficiency Studies in Universities under the Chairmanship of Sir Alex Jarratt, CB, Chairman, Reed International PLC and Chancellor of Birmingham University was appointed in 1984 by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (England) for recommendations ‘to promote and co-ordinate, in consultation with the individual institutions which it will select, a series of efficiency studies of the management of the universities concerned’. Its Report was submitted in 1985 to the above-mentioned Committee and University Grants Commission in UK; the Report was accessed online on 14 September 2020 from

[39Government of UK (1963), The Robbins Committee Report, Higher Education Report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins, London, p.10.

[40Edward R. Dougherty (2019), ‘The Decline of American Science and Engineering’, American Affairs, Vol. III, No. 1, Spring.

[41Walter Isaacson (2019), Walter Isaacson (2019), ‘How America Risks Losing Its Innovation Edge’, TIME, January 3, 2019 Accessed online on 12 October 2020 from (no page number found).

[42Jonathan Dworin (2015), The Changing Nature of U.S. Basic Research: Trends in Performance Part three of a 3-part series, The State Science & Technology Institute (SSTI), June 04, 2015 Accessed online on 13 October 2020 from

[43Ibid. no page number found

[44Anthony King (2019), ‘Australian basic research squeezed as R & D to fall to lowest level for decades’, Chemistry World (Royal Society of Chemistry), 16 August Accessed online on 13 October 2020 from

[45E.g. Jenny Rohn, Stephen Curry and Andrew Steele (2015), ‘UK research funding slumps below 0.5% GDP putting us last in the G8’, The Guardian, 13 March, 2015

[46For example, there is of late a growing voice in India against drastic cuts in state expenditure on research at the institutes of higher learning and research (including universities); see e.g. Subhash Lakhotia (2018), ‘Research Fund Crunch, Real or Created, is Hitting India’s Academia on the Wrong Side’, Proceedings of Indian Natural Sciences Academy 84(3): 545-547.

[47This new predicament/phenomenon of the university has been painstakingly demonstrated and articulated by Benjamin Ginsberg in his celebrated book of 2011 entitled The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[48See Nicholas Bloom, Charles I. Jones, J. V. Reenen and Michael Webb (2020), ‘Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?’ American Economic Review 111(4):1104-1144.

[49See Benjamin Jones (2009), ‘The Burden of Knowledge and the Death of the Renaissance Man: Is Innovation Getting Harder? Review of Economic Studies, 76(5):283-317.

[50Nicholas Bloom et. al. (2020), op. cit.

[51Charles I. Jones (2005), ‘Growth and Ideas’ In: Philippe Aghion and Steven N. Durlauf (editors), Handbook of Economic Growth, Volume 1B, Elsevier B.V.

[52Cited and quoted in Charles I Jones 2005, Ibid. especially pp.1069-1070.

[53See e.g. Arup Maharatna (2020), ‘The Murder of Imagination’, Mainstream, Vol LVIII (11).

[54US Government (1945), Science The Endless Frontier (A Report to the President by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, July 1945), Washington: United States Government Printing Press (Accessed online on 28 August 2020 from HYPERLINK "" (no page number found). Note that at the time of writing the Report, Dr Bush had referred to universities/colleges as the best sites for conducting ‘basic research’ with their least extraneous pressure on researchers. However, one can reasonably be apprehensive as to how far this this insight/perception/prescription of the 1940s could still hold good today unless at least the best-known universities begin undertaking steps towards reversal of many major ideational reforms unleashed by the trajectory of rising neoliberal ideological dominance since WWII.

[55Ronald Dore (1980), op. cit. (page numbers not found)

[56Michael Bailey and Des Freedman (ed) (2011), The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, London: Pluto Press; E.J. Hyslop-Margison and A.M. Sears (2006), Neo-liberalism, Globalization, and Human Capital Learning: Reclaiming Education for Democratic Citizenship, Dordrecht: Springer; Lawrence Busch (2017), Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

[57Arup Maharatna (2013), ‘What is meant by “changing times” after all?’ In Arup Maharatna (2013), India’s Perceptions, Society and Development: Essays Unpleasant, Dordrecht: Springer India.

[58Paul Seabright (2012), ‘How to defend universities’, The Times Literary Supplement, 7 March.

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