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Mainstream, VOL LII No 37, September 6, 2014

Invasion of Educational Universe by ‘Economics’: A Civilisational Casualty?

Saturday 6 September 2014, by Arup Maharatna



In the late 1950s there emerged (somewhat abruptly) a constricted one-dimensional economic interpretation of the role and purpose (hence the philosophy) of education largely from the standpoint of the concepts, categories and methodology of mainstream (neo-classical) economics. This soon culminated into the foundation of a new branch of economic discourse/inquiry, namely, economics of education, which eventually weakened the pre-existing humanistic vision and liberal view of education, leaving increasing room for private investment and profitability in education and the latter’s myriad delusions. It is argued that an increasing tendency towards a hegemonic position of this economic perspective on education is likely to hasten a deepening debilitation of academic standard and rigour, sanctity, and related intellectual, ideational, ideological vibrancy crucial for sustenance of the perennial process of civilisational progression.

The broad object of the present essay is to explicate the dominant trends and influences of the post-World War II neo-liberal (economic) thinking on the sphere of education and its ramifications for the content, pedagogy and standard of education at a global level.1 In the early 1960s, there emerged (somewhat abruptly) a constricted one-dimensional economic interpretation of the role and purpose of education in terms of concepts, categories and methodology of mainstream (neo-classical) economics. This soon culminated into the foundation of a new branch of economic discourse/inquiry, namely ‘economics of education’. The latter eventually weakened, if not dislodged altogether, the pre-existing humanistic vision and liberal view of education in which it is seen as a vehicle for moving on—through cultivation of basic knowledge, critical thinking, creative imagination, democratic ideals—not only to a higher economic or material level, but also (and perhaps more fundamentally) to the more enlightened civilisational ethos and citizenship. As would be argued in this paper, an increasingly hegemonic dominance of the economic paradigm of education has been instrumental to a deepening debilitation of academic standard and rigour, sanctity, and related intellectual, ideational, ideological vibrancy crucial for sustenance of the perennial process of civilisational progression, and is thereby likely to land us all into a global ‘civilisational crisis’. Let us first spell out the basic premise on which our argument is designed to rest.

The Premise

That education is a prime instrument or vehicle for modern industrial and technological progress and related material achievements is commonplace for quite long and especially since the industrial revolution. It is largely through education that the modern industrial civilisation ensures sustained supplies of necessary skills, expertise, and professionals who could not only make possible the production of newer and newer commodities, comforts of life, and hence persistent improvements in the material standard of living but also keep up fundamental scientific inventions, technological progress and inno-vations, growth of productivity. Education has long been nurtured as a self-enlivening main-spring of creative intellectual impulse and/or enlightened urge for objective search for truth and knowledge, making possible an inexorable flow of scientific inventions, technological, intelle-ctual and social progress. The prominent ‘breeding place’ of such precious (invaluable) self-propelling impulse and inspiration for exploring the ‘new’ and ‘more efficient’ has been the seats of academic research and higher edu-cation (for example, universities and colleges) liberally patronised and exhaustively supp-orted—but hardly dictated or unduly inter-fered—by the state.2

Academic scientists—both in physical and social sciences—over the preceding centuries have received education typically in a way (for example, state-run) and of a kind (for example, liberal education) that designed them to be driven not by the prospect or incentives for big pecuniary largesse and wealth, but by a potentially deep sense of fulfilment and accomplishment obtaining at the moment of their new inventions or other intellectual breakthroughs per se. It is a nearly universal time-tested proposition that a new intellectual invention or original creation or discovery calls for, to start with, an intrinsic passion and inspiration rarely forthcoming in exchange for pecuniary gains and material wealth. Passion for transcending the already known or achieved could only be, like fire, kindled and perhaps aroused through enlightening, inspiring, and liberal education; it cannot be manufactured like any other economic commodity.

The preponderance of universal, secular, humanistic and liberal ideals of education over the entire post-renaissance eras did not take shape abruptly, but through indomitable agencies of enlightened and analytical thinking, reasoning, debating, educating, and legislating along with deepening of democracy and human liberty.3 In this entire process of civilisational progress, the role of education has been pivotal, albeit invaluable, and hence largely immea-surable, since its extensive reach and depth is amenable only too precariously to the mundane pecuniary categories, calculations, and such other mainstays of mainstream economics. Who can dare to doubt the key role of liberal and rational humanist thinking, arguments, and their articulation through education in transcending the entrenched inhumanity and slavery of the medieval age?

As is amply exemplified in the history of human civilisation, one can hardly go very far in her pursuits of scholarly or artistic originality or scientific inventiveness without possessing a critical minimum level of inspiration, passion, innate urge, all of which are impervious to pure pecuniary incentives for personal wealth, affluence and economic gain. Although the latter are often found, not surprisingly, to follow the former, they are intrinsically barred from being the former’s mainspring. For example, a provision of even stupendously enormous personal bounty and perks for a scientist cannot guarantee her success in inventing a funda-mental scientific principle, say, Einstein’s ‘law of relativity’ or Newton’s law of gravitation. Even though the offer of a tenured university position with its attendant security of job and stability of income has sometimes been alleged to have had some (albeit indirect) instrumen-tality to Albert Einstein’s epoch-making inven-tion, nobody on earth could perhaps dare to say that the size of salary earned or the prospect of huge personal bounty attached with the Nobel Prize has been even remotely instru-mental to his profound academic (scientific) contributions.

Thus, while a highly handsome salary and/or fantastic perks per se cannot ensure the happening of an original invention or intellectual breakthrough, it is mostly under a liberal academic environment typically afforded in a seat of higher learning and research, say, a university, that one could ordinarily hope for fundamental inventions or discoveries to materialise. Education thus is unquestionably a major pillar of civilisation which, according to Albert Schweitzer, is “the sum total of all progress made by ‘mankind’ in every sphere of action and from every point of view, insofar as this progress is serviceable for the spiritual perfecting of the individual”. Indeed the civilisational progress, only a part of which is constituted of material and technological growth, flows out from sensitive nurture and rigorous cultivation of creative impulse and enlightened proclivities through liberal edu-cation untinkered by narrow pecuniary interests and calculations. Consequently, civilisational advancement is something which could remain alive and relevant even if an imminent ‘end of history’ of the post-Cold War world in the Francis Fukuyama sense would have come largely true. Nor does it entail an asymptotic ending like the one envisaged in W.W. Rostow’s restrictive notion, namely, ‘the age of mass consumption’ as a final stage of economic growth and development.

It is pretty plain that the role and purpose of education is not circumscribed solely by its instrumentality in achieving a stage of mass consumption or mass communication, since education—through its cultivation of funda-mental research, objective ideas and thinking, deeper insights, inspiration, and a passion for contributing to the cause of entire humanity—serves as a lifeblood of civilisational progression.4 In keeping up excellence and related dynamics of the civilisational advancement, there has perennially been an element of judicious exclusivity in higher education, which ought not to be foregone just for the sake of boosting the so-called ‘economic growth’ that could be fuelled by an emerging ‘mass market’ for educational degrees. Let a person with her augmented incomes and wealth along the process of economic growth admire and buy new paintings or good books of stories for their enlightening ingredients and universal tastes, but let not her wealth per se indulge her to venture into buying or trying to artificially inject the eminence, passion, talent embodied in a select set of creators of those articles, whose creative impulse is typically beyond the reach of narrow economic stimulus and pecuniary incentives. Such subtle limits of personal income/and wealth and hence of mainstream economics could perhaps be better described in terms of its analogy with the limits of physical force vis-à-vis will: one can forcefully bring a horse to the bank of a river, but the horse cannot be forced into drinking even its single drop of water!

Capture of Education by Economics: a 

Cold War Agenda since the 1950s?

Rather soon after the Second World War, the role, functions, efficiency and finance of the educational sector began receiving a major chunk of strategic attention of influential quarters at various levels in the advanced Western nations generally and the USA in particular. One plausible reason could be the fact that education is a potent channel for moulding people’s ideology, world view, and perceptions. For example, Dwight D. Eisenhower as the President of the Columbia University in New York, while denouncing the federal intrusion into public schools, writes in the late 1940s in a typical Cold war rhetoric that ‘unless we are careful, even the great and necessary educational processes in our country will become yet another vehicle by which the believers in paternalism, if not outright socialism, will gain still additional power for the central government’.5 Notably there has been relatively little research and inquiry into ascertaining the net impact of the Cold War per se on academies, universities and overall intellectual tone, texture, and directions, except for a few anecdotal studies and accounts. (for example, Chomsky et al. 1997)

Well up to the Second World War the American education, much like the entire Western world, has been, on the whole, guided by the liberal ideals, including democratic and political equality, primacy of cultivation of intellect and intellectual skills distinct from practical knowledge and applied skills. (Mulcahy 2010) However, the 1950s witnessed an intellectual groundwork for somewhat radical (albeit not ‘progressive’) changes in ideational, attitudinal, and ideological arenas pertaining to education. To start with, there were suddenly ‘conscious efforts to organise, institutionalise and promote the comparative study of education in the United States’, with the formation of Comparative Education Society in 1956 followed next year by the inauguration of its service organ, namely, Comparative Education Review. In this formative period ‘considerable emphasis was placed on the teaching of comparative education in American colleges and universities and its use in the preparation of teachers’ (Kazamias and Schwartz 1977:154), but the prominent activities of the Society such as study tours, conferences, seminars, preparation of text books sooner or later encompassed much of the globe.

The rise of the new comparative education paradigm was accompanied both by a rising practical view of education (as an instrument for social, economic, and political development) and by a theoretical urge for enhancing the application of the concepts and techniques of social sciences, especially those of sociology, political science, and economics. Although the subject-matter of comparison in the field of comparative education was originally of ‘ideas, ideals and forms’ of education, it eventually got centred around two domains, namely, school-centred problems and school-society relation-ships. (Ibid.: 153-154)

The new lines of thinking and underlying predilections of comparative education approach since the 1950s and 1960s have had three distinct dimensions:

a) structural-functionalism: social functions, social interdependence, social order or consensus and value-free science;

b) development education: stressing human capital formation, manpower planning, political socialisation and nation-building, attitudinal modernity and institutional differentiation and specialisation;

c) methodological empiricism: emphasis on numerical methods to achieve precise and reliable knowledge and objective explanations independent of the phenomena observed.

Of course, the ideological predilections or overtones of the new comparative education perspective were questioned in some quarters. For example, the emphasis on a crude functio-nalism founded, as it were, on the instrumental values of education in maintaining stability or in raising ‘social efficiency’ gives it not only a static and politically conservative temper, but ‘by refusing to deal frontally with categorical purposes and human projects, functionalism depoliticises its subject-matter and trivialises its concerns’. (Barber 1972; quoted in Kazamias and Schwartz 1977:162) The other criticisms of the structural-functional perspective include its reductionist tendencies, its restrictions on questions raised, conservative ideology regarding schools, and its disregard for important aspects of educational change. (Kazamias 1963, 1972) Indeed, structural-functionalism, as a frame-work to analyse and interpret society and social changes, has often been assessed as ‘consensus-oriented, politically conservative, and ahistorical’, with its tacit acceptance of ‘the inevitability of some social and economic inequalities’. (Kazamias and Schwartz 1977:162) But such critiques on the whole proved to be of nearly negligible consequence relative to the immensity of scale and comprehensiveness of newly launched global endeavour forging the neo-liberal economic perspectives on the educational thinking and practice.

In fact, parallel to the above-noted shifts since the late 1950s in the educational discourse towards incorporating social science concepts and their empirical methods has been a concerted enterprise on the part of a section of the mainstream economics profession to highlight and publicise the role of education predominantly as a means to the creation of a ‘new’ economic resource, namely, ‘human capital’. In the notion of the latter, the addition of education, skill and training of the popu-lation—so-called human capital formation—has not only been highly instrumental but indeed no less critical than physical capital accumu-lation per se in explaining modern economic growth, as it were, across the industrial world over about half-a-century up to the post-World War years. Its immediate corollary—combined with its substantial benefaction from major multinational agencies and big corporate foundations—has been to make the whole world begin to treat education expenditures as an ‘investment in man’ being a key to modern material growth. Education defined and viewed narrowly as an engine of human capital formation happened to save the neo-classical growth theory from its failure to explain the preceding long-term growth experience (or the lack of it in the developing countries) in terms of the pace of physical capital accumulation per worker alone. In fact, this allegedly new idea of the 1960s that economic growth was facilitated greatly by ‘investment expenditure’ on human capital accumulation (that is, on quantity and quality of workers’ education) took on immedia-tely ‘the character of a discovery’. (Myrdal 1968, vol. 3, p. 1544)

The clue to the widely perceived novelty and popularity of the idea of putting emphasis squarely on the economic role of education does not stem exactly from its newness. While referring to the changing meaning and social purpose of education along with the growing importance of market relations in the American past, Cohen and Neufeld (1981:71) write that ‘by the early part of this century [twentieth century] it was already an article of faith that special technical knowledge was the key to prosperity in the modern age’. What, however, turned out to have been really new in the human capital theory and its related accent on the economic value of education was the new conviction/consensus that ‘widely differing observed phenomenon could be rendered intelligible by the idea of human capital formation’. (Blaug 1968: 11) Indeed, as F. Machlup (1970:1) notes, ‘[t]he literature on the subject of education and economic growth is some two hundred years old, but only in the last ten years has the flow of publications taken on the aspects of a flood’—a historic fact whose genesis has been meagrely ravealed and researched by the mainstream economics profession.

For example, the human capital theory not only offered an ingenuous explanation of the divergent growth performances of the develo-ped and developing countries, leaving the ideo-logically-loaded or politically sensitive questions of colonial or neo-colonial exploitative mecha-nisms redundant or bypassed altogether, but it has had far-reaching implications for the shaping of a dominant neo-liberal approach in the post-Cold War era. (Maharatna 2011) While historically educational reform has been consi-dered as a prerequisite for improving agriculture, promoting industrialisation, and the speed-up of development, it was virtually never put into a conceptual strait-jacket of financial investment prior to the discovery of the notion of human capital. Since the 1960s ‘a mounting campaign for the laissez-faire finance of education’ (for example, ‘the imposition of direct charges and the establishment of private institutions’) began to be crystallised. (Preece 1971:154, 162) The pioneering and most influential voice for a laissez-faire policy in education was made in 1962 by Milton Friedman, who proposed not only that ‘indivi-duals should bear the costs of investments in themselves’, but also that the existing state schools should be denationalised, with a view to reaping the potential benefits purportedly contingent upon the free play of the market mechanism (for example, optimum allocation of resources, benefits of competition among educational institutions, and freedom of choice among parents). In the mainstream economic parlance, education since the early 1960s thus began to be seen predominantly as a private good, calling for ‘investment expendi-ture’ on the part of parents and thereby decreeing the demise of the centuries-old notion of education as public good provided through a publicly-funded service towards secular civili-sational and human advancement. (Desai 2002 and literature cited therein)

Serious efforts since the 1960s on the part of a section of the mainstream economics profession to highlight the urgency of viewing the role, value, and purpose of education predominantly in terms of its pecuniary contribution to avowed (albeit elusive) economic growth and produc-tivity increase was far from a historical fluke. For instance, many privately managed research organisations, branded under the generic name ‘think-tank’, sprang up with one major agenda: of instilling and advocating neo-liberal ideas and policy in the educational arena.6 In particular, the overwhelming share of state expenditure and responsibility in the provision of education as a public good was ruthlessly attacked for the sake of preaching an imminent necessity of bringing within the orbit of the free market forces. (West 1965) The development of ideological ‘ammunitions’ designed to dislodge the long-standing state control over education was greatly facilitated by concerted efforts and initiatives on the part of influential corporate bodies, academicians, global multilateral agencies and media. By way of illustration: it could hardly be a sheer historical coincidence that 1961 witnessed both the publication of the celebrated paper of Theodore W. Schultz on ‘Investment in Human Capital’ (presented just a few months earlier at the 73rd Annual Conference of the American Economic Asso-ciation), the new-born Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s (first) Policy Conference on Economic Growth and Investment in Education (in Washington DC), which aimed at bringing at ‘the centre-stage in the international dialogue’ ‘emerging theories of human capital then being developed by Gary Becker, Theodore Schultz and others’ (OECD 2011:13), as well as the commissioning of a Committee on British Higher Education under the chairmanship of Lord Lionel Robbins, whose report, submitted in 1963, favouring rapid expansion of higher education, got accepted within 24 hours by the British Parliament. In the following year of 1962, the International Social Science Journal, an organ of the UNESCO, devoted an entire issue to the ‘Economics of Education’ containing about seven articles laying stress almost exclusively on the economic aspects/underpinnings of education. Notably, the Robbins’ Report was overwhel-mingly (if not exclusively) oriented to the economic aspects and considerations pertaining to higher education: ‘The more people in higher education, the better the economy.’ (Quoted in Gibney 2013:6)

Thus the development of the human capital perspective on education since the early 1960s seems to have been a part of a larger agenda at the international plane to propagate that ‘[t]he accumulation of knowledge and its transmission to new generations represents an increasingly important part of economic activity’. (Vaizey 1962:619) At an even more fundamental level the agenda could well have been the one of freeing the educational sector and its market from the age-old protection and control of the state. It was declared that the educational problems that came to the fore in the 1960s called for educational research that should increasingly be within the disciplinary domain of economics, since education from now on should be viewed as ‘an industry like any other’ whose production technology needed to be understood chiefly through economic analysis in order to enhance its ‘productivity’. (Vaizey 1962) This sounds like a virtual call for a swift break from the pre-existing dominant ideas and arguments pertaining to the philosophy and practices of education even in its immediate past.

Indeed the newly emerged theory of human capital and its offshoots (for example, economics of education) were founded almost from the scratch, with little ancestry or lineage in terms of pre-existing research and theorising prior to the 1950s. An early survey of the literature on economics of education notes that ‘while economists have long been aware of the importance of education, it is only recently that attempts at quantifying the value of this education have been made’. (Woodfill 1963:4) The 1960s and 1970s, in fact, witnessed a few academic attempts at challenging the classical discourse, arguments and rationale favourable to the comprehensive provisioning of education as a public ‘good’ or public service over the preceding centuries.

These suddenly, albeit craftily, mounted critiques of the classical political economists’ thoughts in favour of state education, appear often fairly propagandist and partisan in spirit and tone, blatantly advocating the entry of free private enterprise in the educational scene, albeit, backed by appropriately or conveniently limited state support or regulation. (West 1965) For instance, the entire classical case for a large chunk of state finance and control over education was often posited to rest only on two grounds, namely, ‘protection of children’ from parental ignorance or misperceptions and ‘neighbour-hood’ effects of education in curbing crime and delinquency in the society. (West 1965) While the purposive use of simplistic market-centred logic, excerpts and selective evidence could rather easily prove the classical arguments to be superfluous in the twentieth century context, the classical concerns for distinct social hazards and risks of leaving education in the hands of private business and enterprise driven intrinsi-cally by profit motive got overlooked.

Similarly, an alleged antagonism between the arguments of Adam Smith and J.S. Mill on the suitability of competition among private busine-sses in the provision of education was sometimes made out with a view to undermining even the long-standing case for state control of education. (West 1964) Indeed E.G., West concludes his self-styled and selective dissection of classical arguments favourable to state provision of education by stating that ‘there is no special virtue in the passive acceptance of a dominant government role in education merely on the ground that “history” supports it’. (West 1965:233)

Alongside rapid articulation of human capital perspective, there has been the build-up of a case and public consensus for the enhancement of the private sector’s stake in education. In fact there has been a luxuriant growth of economic analyses of what were largely hyped as the most pressing proximate malice pertaining to the financial and other economic issues of educational provision. First, the ‘rising cost of education per student’—reflected, as it were, in an increasing proportion of public expenditure on education in most of the Western/industria-lised countries—began to be seen (in some quarters) as a grave revelation, calling for its detailed economic analysis and appropriate economic remedy. (Bowen 2012 and literature cited therein) The explanation, sought mostly within a production function framework in the tradition of neo-classical economics, was often shown to lie crucially in the labour-intensive nature of higher educational activity and output, as it has allegedly and evidently failed to absorb, unlike most other productive processes, produc-tivity-enhancing capital-intensive technological changes. To put it in terms of a simple but astute analogy: ‘[w]hile productivity gains have made it possible to assemble cars with only a fraction of the labour that was once required, it still takes four musicians nine minutes to perform Beethoven’s String Quartet in C minor, just as it did in the 19th century’. (Quoted in Bowen 2012:4)

The policy recommendations turned— unsurprisingly—to be in tune with what was pushed globally (at the behest of major multilateral agencies such as the WTO, World Bank, IMF) under the generic name of economic reforms and structural adjustment programmes: first, cost-reducing methods, reforms, and technology be increasingly introduced in educational institutions across the world; and second, for the sake of augmenting ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’ in educational institutions, there be growing incentives and encouragements towards privatisation and free market competi-tion in the provision or sale of what has increasingly come to be portrayed as private educational ‘care’ of the citizens. As for illustration of the extent to which the entire education question has been eclipsed by the neo-liberal economic thinking: the job of deciding about the judiciousness or priority of preserva-tion of the heritage buildings in a country or region is often being left to committees presided over by economists of neoliberal persuasion and their admittedly narrow pecuniary considerations, perceptions, and world view.

It is, of course, remarkable that the newly mounted economic arguments in the neo-liberal lines could on the whole walk rather easily over the discipline of education, with comparatively little effective resistance and opposition from the latter. Even though there have been a few serious questionings within the disciplinary boundary of education (Preece 1971, Grace 1989, and Giroux 1988, 1998), such stray voices have easily been heeded in the floors of parliamentary discourse, discussions, and legislative sessions/assemblies almost across the entire world especially in the post-Cold War era.

We would now turn to the upshot of almost dramatic transformation of the educational paradigm, ideology, curriculum-related practices and policies post-World War II and in particular to a brief scrutiny of diverse indicators of intell-ectual, ideational, or civilisational level of the current generations who have received, or have been receiving, education thoroughly reformed, reoriented, and restructured globally on the lines of neo-liberal economic perspectives and thinking elucidated above.

Declining Standards of Education and Learning: a Civilisational Casualty?

There has been doubtlessly enormous global record of rapid increases in educational reach, facilities, infrastructure, expenditure, enrolment and, of course, in the number or proportion of population with educational degrees/certificates, no matter whether as a private good or a public good, whether at the elementary, secondary or higher levels. All this has been broadly in line with the neo-liberal economic thinking on education as a prime agent both of the ‘human capital’ formation and of a boost for the economy, market, and private entrepreneurship in the context of the growing demand for educational qualifications, credentials, or degrees spurred both by demographic trends, rising personal incomes and changing notion and purpose of education itself. What about the net impact of such increasingly expansive and inclusive college/university education and its ever growing market on the overall intellectual levels and quality of people and society at large?

For quite some time now and particularly since the mid-1980s there has been a growing body of evidence, apprehension, and perceived alarm about the declining standard or quality of general academic skills, aptitudes, and knowledge acquired through college education. Initially the allegation of the falling quality of educational skills and standard, especially at the undergraduate level, was based mainly on the perceptions of certain groups of stakeholders, not students’ performance. George Kuh, in a paper published in 1999, reports the results of a study based on temporal comparison of features and quality of school experience, efforts, and performance as revealed by different cohorts of students between the 1960s and 1990s. (Kuh 1999) As shown by the study, extensive fractions of students (more than half to as many as four-fifths) make substantial progress in many areas considered vital to living a self-sufficient, civically responsible, and economically productive life after college, namely, intellectual and communication skills (synthesis, analysis, writing, self-directed learning), personal and social development skills (understanding self and others, being able to function as a team member), and vocational training. But the proportions of students reporting substantial progress in several areas traditionally considered the domain of general education (for example, appreciation and understanding of literature, the arts, science, values development) have decreased since 1969. And, compared to their counterparts of a decade earlier, the students in the 1990s have appeared devoting less effort to activities related to learning and personal development. Perhaps most distur-bingly, despite the distinct record of lower levels of effort put by students in the 1990s, these on the whole appear to fetch higher grades than previously; this is reflected in steady increases in the fraction of college students reporting B+ or higher grades over time since the 1960s.

These trends have been fairly comprehensive and pervasive across all institutional types, though in some instances the magnitudes differ slightly. Although there are some potential pitfalls of the findings not based on strictly longitudinal data set of the same colleges at different points in time, the major findings of the study are found substantially consistent with other and even more robust studies and findings.

In fact there has been ever since considerable amount of evidence and related literature pinpointing similar trends and concerns. For example, in a forceful exposition David Kirp (2004) has shown how in course of the flourishing dominance of the market ideology and neo-liberal reforms in education, 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 the 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.

Almost simultaneously, a collection of essays, edited under the title Declining By Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, published in 2005, examines various aspects of actual learning in institutions of higher education across the USA and reveals obtrusive signs of distinct declines in the standard and quality of educational content and skills imparted to students over time. Interestingly, however, the Secretary of Educa-tion, Margaret Spellings, commissioned in 2005 a committee composed largely of business representatives to recommend changes in the national policy pertaining to higher education. The Spellings Commission brought out in 2006 its report entitled, A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of US Higher Education, which documented and suggested policy changes to address what they saw as some disturbing trends including the rising cost of higher education. However, the Spellings Commission’s report offers no programme to address the rising cost of education and ignores the fact that over the preceding fifteen years the American states have systematically reduced the propor-tion of funding for public colleges and universities (Selfe 2007), leaving even land grant institutions increasingly dependent—on the lines of the private schools—on private funding sources such as tuition, alumni contributions, and corporate research.

In a similar vein, the Spellings Committee Report treats—even more explicitly than ever before—both students and faculty as commodities and thereby undervalues them and their work. Students, for example, are seen as units of wealth that the university produces for the economy, without mentioning their value as citizens or family members, let alone as the agents for human development and civilisational progress, while the faculty at large are represented as being “complacent” and uncaring. However, accumu-lation of evidence continues to indicate that the standard of educational learning and skills has been falling comprehensively across the world throughout the period of ascendancy of the new economic paradigms of education.

In 2007 Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, on the basis of the pooling of a wide range of datasets from multiple sources over a span of thirty years starting from 1960s, brought out a highly interesting revelation pertaining to the temporal trends in the time use patterns of college students across the US. (Babcock and Marks 2007)7 As is revealed by the 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 cohorts in 2003 appear to have invested only about 23-26 hours per week, irrespective of race, gender, ability, family back-ground, courses, employment status, college type. This fairly robust finding of secular declines in the 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 true explanation. For example, one possible hypothesis could be the typical economic one of technological improvements leading to persistent fall in the time requirements of learning/educational process (namely, that the use of word processors makes term paper preparation less time-intensive now than before). However, such technology-mediated economy on the learners’ academic time and effort should have been, one may imagine, offset by the added work pressure in handling the much greater bulk of available and accessible information, knowledge, and literature in respective fields now than previously. Conversely, the academic time saved due to improved technology could well be thought to be characteristically ploughed back into other academic efforts, which are relatively immune to technology improvements (for example, reading, thinking, discussing), but have great potential for improving the worth and quality of the academic output.

In this context a more plausible hypothesis, akin to what is suggested by Kirp (2004), could be that the increasing competition among colleges for students as ‘consumers of edu-care’ who are ‘rationally’ keen to possess job-fetching degrees or certificates at a low price paid in terms of effort, pangs, and pains. This in turn could well induce—through more ‘student-friendly’ curriculum—an increased provision of time for students’ leisure and entertainment. If this is true, this must take a toll on the quantum of students’ actually learnt skills and acquired academic aptitudes, without commensurately adverse reflection on the grades or marks fetched (or perhaps partly bought). Indeed such a paradox of better results hand-in-hand with declining standards has often been reported in the context of the current education scenario both in the advanced Western and developing countries. (Green et al. 2005)

 A few other forces or incentives at work toward the inflation of students’ grades and marks have often been pointed out in recent literature. As the faculty promotion in many places has been made crucially contingent on the reports of periodic teacher evaluations by students, who as rational consumers of edu-care feel that they are best served by teachers most lenient on giving them good grades and marks, there is an in-built tendency among the faculty to keep the students in good humour by giving marks well above what are actually deserved.8 Furthermore, the higher the number of good grades and marks in an educational institution, the better is its rank, other things held the same. This provides incentive and reason for the college management normally to put pressure on its faculty to ensure that students on the whole get decent marks and grades—a fact which, when it combines with the liberal policy of admission to academic programmes of the college for the sake of greater revenues, cannot but end up lowering the real standard of degrees and grades.9

In a more recent major study on the declining standard and quantum of (undergraduate) learning of basic academic skills, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (2010) have utilised transcript data, survey responses, and results from Colle-giate Learning Assessment (a standardised test taken by students in their first semester and at the end of their second year) in order to calculate the proportion of undergraduate students registering real improvement (or its absence) over their initial levels of basic academic skills and aptitudes. This study has reaffirmed—perhaps more tellingly than the earlier ones—the worrisome message of a falling educational skills and standard imparted to the recent cohorts of students: 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 the post-secondary academic programme. (Arum and Roksa 2011) Interestingly, however, the authors refrained from explicitly discerning any sign or source of a ‘crisis’ in this large and growing ‘academically adrift’ population, ‘because institutional and system-level organisational survival is not being threatened in any significant way’. (Ibid.: 5)

Thus, the present functioning of the educational system apparently at an equilibrium state in a majority of countries seems to represent a so-called ‘win-win’ situation for all the four parties involved: students—especially the more fortu-nate ones with the required financial solvency for paying for college education—get ‘good’ marks or grades with lesser effort and perseverance devoted to learning, with a concomitantly smaller quantum and depth of basic academic skills and aptitudes matched by a greater share of leisure and luxury than previously; teachers or faculty, eager to find more time for their own professional and career developments, could appear pleasant both to the students and management by (unduly) inflating the students’ marks and grades in the evaluations; and administrators and management, preoccupied with the making of a decent ranking in the international market for edu-care, are happy to get a long queue of prospective students (clients?) at the time of fresh admission every year; and government funding agencies are chiefly interested in new scientific knowledge.

But the question remains to haunt us all: at whose cost is so much of economic gains accrued to these four major groups or stakeholders? While the cost is not immediately economic and technological, it rather squarely takes the form of a toll on the pace and pattern of the civilisatio-nal progression: the younger the cohort of citizens, more obtuse, insensitive, intellectually insolvent they are, pointing to the imperative need for serious rethinking and overhauling of the currently and globally dominant ideas, ideals, and practice in education so as to avert the hastening of a civilisational crisis ahead or perhaps underway already. This kind of alarmist voice is not original or new. (Callahan 1962; Gatto 1992; Bloom 1987; Nussbaum 2008, Wolf 2002)

However, the present paper consolidates the concern to reiterate that humanity cannot afford treating very long the ongoing (envisaged) process of educational (and perhaps indeed civilisational) dilapidation just as another benign banality emanating from some of the minds belonging to the ‘ivory tower’. 

[Paper presented at the Regional Seminar on the Philosophy of Education organised by the Azim Premji University, Bangalore at the Indian Institute of Health Management Research, Jaipur, March 31-April

2, 2014]


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1. We consciously avoid using such popular categories and terms as ‘post-modernism’ for the sake of maintaining brevity, consistency, and steadfastness of our argument, exposition and contention.

2. A key role that was played historically by state in supporting and maintaining standard, quality, and rigour in academies and higher educational institutions got reaffirmed in the late 19th century when Britain— through one of the pioneers in the Industrial Revolution —experienced relative declines in industrial economy and its international competiveness vis-a-vis other and newer industrial economies marked by far more extensive state involvement in the higher education than in England. (Hobsbawm 1999)

3. Indeed, even today the oldest and renowned universities of the world such as Harvard still announce, while seeking to attract the prospective young minds/students, their zeal for liberal education—‘an education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility. This kind of learning is not only one of the enrichments of existence; it is one of the achievements of civilisation.’ (italics added—see www.admissions.

4. We are, of course, ignoring the arguably nebulous visions often heard such as the one of launching a ‘new civilisation’ virtually cut-off from what and how has our existing civilisation been in place or how we have become what we are. For instance, there are already calls from some quarters for preparations for entering new form of civilisation: ‘we may be on the threshold of the emergence of a new form of civili-sation, as billions of world citizens interact together, unconstrained by today’s monopolies on knowledge or learning opportunities’. (Duderstandt 2012:594)

5. Taken from New York State Education Department (2009), Federal Education and the States, 1945-2009, Albany: New York State Archives; p. 7.

6. As for one example: the Institute of Economic Affairs, an ‘original free-market think tank’, founded in London in 1955, had started commissioning studies that were to question the traditional age-old views about the purpose, nature, and finance of educational provision

 across the world.

7. A slightly revised version of this paper was subse-quently brought out as a NBER Working Paper (Babcock and Marks 2010) and then published as an article in Review of Economics and Statistics. (Babcock and Marks 2011)

8. For instance, marks are often not deducted for poor and wrong grammar and spelling. (Green at al. 2005:11)

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

The author is a former Professor, Gokhale Institue of Politics and Economics, Pune.

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