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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 19, New Delhi, April 24, 2021

Has Traditional Higher Education Been Unduly Elitist? | Arup Maharatna

Friday 23 April 2021, by Arup Maharatna


by Arup Maharatna*

It is far from the case that those, who are in the habit of calling our present times in various teleologically smart names such as ‘age of mass media’, ‘knowledge society’, ‘virtual age’, ‘post-truth society’ or ‘age of fake news’, are all very sure, or know well enough, of what exactly they are talking about. I am deeply sceptical as to how many of those, who frequently call our present age as one of ‘mass media’, are genuinely aware of the havoc being caused by its pervasive spread and associated floods of attractively/palatably packaged information, deliberations, essays and statistics across entire globe. In fact, I propose to elucidate this particular point and its wider societal ramifications by dwelling just on one largely media-mediated popular perception of our contemporary times, namely the age-old (or traditional) higher education system including university of the past (probably up and till 1960s) has been outrageously ‘elitist’, calling passionately for its radical redressal towards wider social justice and equality in higher education. A prime proof adduced in levelling this stigma of ‘elitism’ against long-existing system of higher education is that relatively few (that too mostly from educated, wealthy, and powerful sections), unlike in the case of universal school education, are given access to its fold, with a large chunk of secondary-certificate-holding youth being deprived of access to a lucrative route via higher degrees to an upward (socio-economic) mobility.

Elitism ordinarily connotes a process or scenario wherein only limited number of people are ordained to be given some concerned rights, privileges or accesses. Interestingly, however, this is hardly ever considered incompatible with hardcore democratic principles and spirits. For instance, we are all made to understand that annual Nobel prize distribution represents a well-neigh universal recognition to socially (albeit often potentially) beneficial deeds/discoveries or new insights of a few of the most outstanding/talented minds in their respective fields. But no person even with most passionate admiration for democratic ideas/ideals has ever been known to have called the award of Nobel prize an elitist act just because it is restricted to only a handful of evaluators/selectors or recipients. This shows that relative fewness per se in allocation of privileges is not ethically, morally, or democratically unacceptable when it refers to merit, talent, excellence, or efficiency. And we all understand and agree that talent or merit is very sparsely available or distributed — most likely in a random fashion — across entire population.

Now, if the criterion of academic merit/ability causes higher education, as is the case historically, to remain restrictive and selective, why this relative fewness of participants in say a university is of late being posited as an unmistakable reflection of unjustifiable and unethical elitism? How does an undemocratic element of elitism permeate the scene if a college or university admits candidates chiefly on a basis of demonstrated merit/ability? In fact, there has been little qualm over this issue globally until around the end of WWII. In this context a radical, albeit concerted, post-war voice emerged harping that owing to perennial paucity of colleges and universities many prospective students of comparable merit/ability and aspirations remain deprived of admission/access to higher education. In mainstream economists’ typical parlance, since there exists an excess demand for seats over what are supplied by the prevailing number of institutions, many more new colleges and universities should be set up to thereby eliminate allegedly unjust ‘elitism’ in higher education. Given the limited public resources for establishing new educational institutions as well as an allegedly strong possibility of poor taxpayers funding partially the state-subsidised higher education grabbed largely by children of wealthy/educated households, its one significant corollary has been a perceived urgency for increasingly handing over a large chunk of higher education provisions to private capital and free market. However, there are profound flaws in this entire argument, which remain, strikingly, almost unsung both in mass-media and academic discourses.

First, higher or university education, unlike schools, has historically and globally been conceived and designed not for all, but only for those who deserve it on the criteria of intellectual endowments/capacities and strong passion/dedication towards it. Apart from avoiding wastage of public resources, one of the most important reasons behind this exclusivity of higher education has been the maintenance of its own sanctity and high academic standard inter alias through keeping away those who fail at the secondary level to have proved their academic ability and motivation necessary in a pursuit of specialized or higher-level studies. Thus, it seems important that aspirations or desire per se for higher education are not — mistakenly — construed as ‘deservingness’ (or eligibility) for it. This, understandably, explains why the minimum educational qualification required for even the highest civil services (administrative) posts (who virtually run a polity) is typically set at an ordinary score in undergraduate/college examination, let alone master’s degree. In a contradistinction, even when one intensely wishes to obtain graduate-level degrees she would be debarred if she has had neither a reasonable/required level of demonstrated academic potential, nor a satisfactory past academic record/performance. While she would, unsurprisingly, flock in the que for college admission and thereby add visibly/tangibly to the ‘excess demand’ for higher education, this does not readily lead to an honest case for setting up of additional colleges/universities with a view to accommodating less-than-deserving candidates when pre-existing seats get all filled up by candidates with proven/demonstrated academic potential for pursuing education beyond secondary-level. Higher education is traditionally structured vertically in two tiers, undergraduate and graduate, and it has had a perennial division into vocational and non-vocational courses/programmes. While the former is designed to prepare a student for performing immediately productive/gainful jobs in the market, the latter supposedly educates her to impart a good grounding in the concerned academic subject, so that she is left at the end of the course with an option of pursuing even higher academic stage/level (e.g. graduate) of higher education.

Some criteria of deservingness or abilities evident at the time of leaving secondary school have traditionally been applied into procedure/process of admission to higher education of all levels and types. This corresponds to a traditional scenario wherein all aspirants or applicants do not get admission as it traditionally admits only academically deserving students, albeit of varying aptitudes, aspirations and passions. By same token it safeguards a necessary protection against a highly plausible lowering of academic standard in sequel to clubbing of meritorious and academically incapable or unmotivated students in the same classroom. Bertrand Russell, an epitome of academic rigour and standard, wrote on merging of academically capable and incapable in the same class of a university thus: ‘The practice of teaching clever and stupid pupils together is extremely unfortunate, especially as regards the ablest of them.’ As he continues: ‘It is, I am profoundly convinced, a mistake to object on democratic grounds to the separation of abler from less able pupils in teaching’. In this spirit there has been historically little express romanticism, grumbling or emotional overtones (even in the name of democratic equality) over the fact that many willing, but demonstrably not quite able, candidates cannot secure access/admission to colleges/universities. There has been always rebellious thinking against the oppressive production relations and their fall-out in form of discrimination, exploitation and social inequality, but it was only after WWII that there emerged a chorus of ‘tears’ (‘crocodile’s’?) and rights-based voice for augmenting opportunities/provisions of higher education even amongst lower-calibre masses - often in the name of the underprivileged. Earlier the latter without having been given access to higher education used to build a vocational skill/training or a suitable professional career by taking a suitable job and related livelihoods with no less dignity. But the currently predominant voice seeks social equality via higher education without disturbing the existing inequality-generating production relations and economic systems. The frequently overshadowed truth here is that the clue or origin to the pronounced social inequality — even when manifest in higher education — does not lie, in the main, in traditional higher education system itself, but in the larger socio-economic system that we live in and bear with.

The historically low proportion of higher education participants from poorer socio-economic classes/castes has been neither because, primarily, of any tendency for discrimination on the part of public educational institutions, nor truly due to any class-specific intellectual infirmities/inferiority, but most foundationally because of acute collective desperation for contributing towards ensuring a minimum material livelihood within these households. In economists’ jargons, youth of the poor families can (relatively) rarely afford higher education because of an excessively high opportunity-cost (i.e. foregone incomes) to be paid throughout entire duration of full-time higher education of the concerned members of poverty-stricken families. Thus, it is the societal socio-economic inequality that is to blame for poor’s non-participation in higher education, not a discriminatory admission policy of college or university as such. But this fundamental fact of inequality — at the socio-economic plane - has often wrongly been used to accuse traditional higher education system of exclusionary or unduly restrictive tendencies. This has led a mounting pressure for opening the gates of universities to a wider population, irrespective of merit. Relatedly, a phenomenon of what John Galbraith called ‘mass affluence’ in the west over the post-war period seems to have set ‘higher education’ apart from the earlier times, with a commensurate fuelling of both private aspirations for higher degrees as well as shining growth and bounties of an educational service industry selling what is unabashedly named ‘edu-care’. And, thus, the features of the post-war higher education began typically getting far more complex, camouflaged, and indeed confounded.

An arguably twisted statement that higher education has been historically treated as an exclusive reserve for children of educated or wealthy or influential households does not seem to tally well with long-lived reality of sustained societal progress and growth. For example, it would not be an unreasonable presumption that the number of Nobel Prize winners whose socio-economic origins/backgrounds have been quite inobtrusive, are not negligible. This is because talent or merit is randomly dispersed across classes or castes. Indeed, the difference in the proportion of students, who have excelled in higher education, should scarcely be very large between wealthy and poor population groups. It seems difficult to deny that many brilliant talented students of very humble socio-economic background or caste have historically carved out their place of distinction and fame in society, thanks to academic merit having been increasingly accorded high priority in admissions as well as subsequent academic evaluations over the post-Renaissance centuries. Contrariwise, there must be many candidates from educated, wealthy or powerful families who get denied — on merit-based grounds — the access to their desired courses in higher education. It is perhaps not a genuine rarity that all siblings in a the same well-to-do or influential/powerful family could not succeed in securing admission (on merit ground) to public higher education.

All this is not to downplay, however, that students from poor or underprivileged households encounter far greater adversities/hurdles in most of their pursuits and ventures including higher education than those of the privileged sections of society.
Conversely it is also true that power and wealth have rarely been allowed to supersede the key priority of merit or intellectual ability in historical higher education system, leaving the lately alleged stigma of elitism open to honest doubts and questioning. It sounds a little odd, indeed, that while inequality in income or assets or privileges between classes has, for long or even now, been considered perfectly compatible with democratic principles and basic human rights, such inequality in access/opportunity to higher education is currently being found intolerable, despite considerable risks of falls in educational rigour/standard. This, thus, clangs equivalent to asking — rather unfairly - higher education to pay the price for deep socio-economic inequality and injustice at an immeasurable expense of former’s time-honoured quality and standard. While this unfair/unhealthy scheme (albeit unsurprisingly popular) has often been readily agreeable to world politicians for their narrower immediate mission of holding on to power, there are almost obvious reasons why this could end up spelling a recipe for doomsdays for everyone in a longer run.

A sustained stimulation to the demand for higher education is typically stirred by a simple stylised/popularised fact of the job-market, namely, having higher degrees/diplomas — other things held constant — makes for a wide upward variation in salaries/earnings. This has naturally fed into an inherent tendency or perhaps even an obsession among prospective cohort of job-seekers to secure — by all means — educational degrees. This has often — akin to Charlie Chaplin’s famous ‘the Gold Rush’ - resulted in what was astutely described about half a century back as a ‘diploma disease’ — a bagful of degrees/diplomas just for the sake of a job in the labour market, no matter whether they do truly/adequately correspond to acquired skills and expertise or to the specific/immediate requirements of concerned jobs. What, thus, follows is not only a tremendous rush for admissions to degrees/diplomas-dispensing higher education institutions, but it also implies relatively little societal cognisance towards the creation of commensurately more productive or better-quality workforce and citizens.

Once educational degree comes to be widely seen as a marketable commodity, it creates its own market demand, even though it may have little to do with real ‘education’ that the whole world has known it for ages (e.g. quality of citizenry, enlightenment, liberal values). Advertising the pomp, prestige, prospects or promises of prosperity through educational degrees overshadows hardcore academic pursuits and practices at the behest of higher education institutions. Education now can become to mean, in large part, a uniform, a hefty tuition fee, a holdall bag, a stereotype albeit exclusive behaviour and mannerism suitable to marketing and sales, birthday celebrations of peers, evening parties on slightest pretexts, even quite a few names of big (and popular) — not their works - academicians or scientists, and at the end a glittering testimonial and virtually little else. Thus, the higher education market could now be both dynamic in tunes with the movements of GDP and other indicators of macroeconomy and be at its equilibrium too. But it would be utterly unwise to continue with a stubborn ambivalence to the brewing of foundational fragility of higher education, especially when the cost of mass higher educational production, now stripped of ‘elitism’, takes a disproportionate form of rapidly wilting academic standard/quality, causing an increasing evaporation of thinking and imaginative minds and intellects. This is a phenomenon about which most people prefer appearing silent spectators under a constant apprehension that they would otherwise be branded as pathological (unpleasant/unwanted) exemplars of negative thoughts about future. Alas, very few people seem to realise that the survival of human society would be in serious perils if we choose to banish almost all critical (and unfashionable) thinking or approach on the pretext of a gentler-sounding nickname, ‘negative thinking’ — a term best infused nowadays by the populist mainstream mass-media. People, therefore, seem to remain characteristically ambivalent to the deeper truth that use of mass-media, lavish (albeit seldom intelligent) advertising and technical innovations can hardly escape the fatal wrath invoked by a process that resembles essentially one of a ‘sinking ship’. Society has needed for long socially concerned educated ‘elites’ to deeply think and define what is intrinsically meant by ‘democracy’ and ‘basic human-rights’ as well as the subtle attempts at their suppression whenever necessary. Accusing traditional higher education/university of elitism and hence raising voice for opening gates to all willing (irrespective of innate intellectual ability/aptitude) to obtain degrees could, thus, turn into what smacks consequentially of the famous folklore about the great ancient poet, Kalidasha, who was at once trying to chop off the very branch of the tree which he himself was riding!

(Author: Arup Maharatna is Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor, Central University of Allahabad)

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