The Ni-Ni generation: thoughts on the purpose of higher education (#CFHE12)

Can higher education change the future social stratification of society or will higher education continue to duplicate and perpetuate inequality? Should we hold higher education accountable for decreasing existing and future inequalities? With increasing numbers of graduates finding themselves joining the queues of the unemployed, what type of qualification will prevent this from happening?

In his book on “What are universities for?” Collini (2012, p.11) compares museums and universities and says that both these institutions enable “individuals to place themselves in relation to the world, and especially to time.” He (p.11) refers to Neil McGregor, the Director of the British Museum who said that museums’ purpose is to give “people their place in things.”

If one of the purposes of higher education is to create spaces where individuals can find their places in the bigger scheme of things, let us then not forget that this does not come cheap and that not all students find a place in higher education despite efforts to democratize higher education. Many of those who do find a place in higher education whether on the basis of privilege, potential or a quota,  or by begging, stealing or borrowing, may find themselves without a place in the world joining the ranks of the unemployed. There is therefore increasing talk of the Ni-Ni generation – those who are Not in Employment, and Not in Education (Bauman, 2012, p.72) and, increasingly, if they have been higher education, they may find themselves in employment unrelated to what they studied.

Collini (2012) points to the fact that we cannot expect of higher education to unilaterally address the effects of a class-divided society. Bauman (2012) states that our neighborhoods, (as our student profiles…) not necessarily mirror class differences, but rather mirror the crude effects of a market and consumer driven society where the haves and have-nots stay in different neighborhoods, and end up having different trajectories based on their social and cultural capital. I agree with Collini (2012) that we cannot expect of higher education to make a dent in the crass income-based divisions in broader society when all our economic and higher education policies celebrate and perpetuate the effects of having access to markets and capital (in its various forms).

If we accept that access to education has always been based on criteria already found and validated in broader society – whether based on gender, race, culture or income – the expectation that higher education can be different and unilaterally address the inequalities kept in place by the market, is simply not fair (or logic).  If we furthermore accept that higher education mirrors societal class differences, we are left with students as consumers – with haves and have nots – and where graduates are supposed to join the ranks for approved bulimic consumers (Bauman, 2012) who consume and throw away in a vicious cycle of rapturous consumption, living in gated communities and security complexes. Bauman (2012) describes the 2011 riots in the UK as “the mutiny of the humiliated” (p. 91) where the rioters did not riot against consumptions and rampant consumerism, but “made a (misguided and doomed) attempt to join” (p. 92). The have-nots or the Ni-Ni, are a category of “defective consumers” – where “non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life unfulfilled – of nonentity and good-for-nothingness (p. 89). The riots were “impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force; it is envy, masked as triumphant carnival” (p. 122).

If higher education’s purpose is to help graduates find a place, we need to question where that ‘place’ is. Is that ‘place’ among the ranks of a new “feral elite” (Bauman, 2012, p. 94) or as just another unfulfilled and defective customer in the ranks of the Ni-Ni generation?  I want to contest the claim by Collini (2012, p. 11) that the purpose of higher education is to help graduates “to place themselves in relation to the world, and especially to time.” We need to help graduates to understand who and what allocates places in the world and the criteria of being part of those who have and those who don’t. Our graduates need to see how the allocation of place shapes inter-generational (dis)placement and categories of people that will be permanently displaced and disenfranchised. We need to create in our students a discomfort with the dominant discourses of the day, whether the impact of neoliberal market ideologies or the results of bulimic cycles of consumption.  We need to provide our graduates with the necessary tools to disrupt these discourses and the ability to formulate alternative ways of seeing themselves and others.

I would like to conclude by making two final points: Higher education and especially faculty cannot redefine the purpose of higher education if we, ourselves, have sold out to the highest bidder, when we are comfortable in our role as bulimic consumers – constantly buying and throwing away, buying and throwing away.

We also have to soberly accept that current and future higher education cannot unilaterally change a consumption-obsessed society where protest against exclusion is not against the neoliberal market ideologies driving consumption, but against being excluded and being designated to a place amongst the ranks of those who do not fit in the bulimic cycle of consumption.  Bauman (2012, p.68) states that “Social promotion through education served for many years as a fig leaf for the naked and indecent inequality of human conditions and prospects.” I am afraid the fig leaf has dried out…


Bauman, Z. (2012). On education. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Collini, S. (2012). What are universities for? London, UK: Penguin Books.

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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4 Responses to The Ni-Ni generation: thoughts on the purpose of higher education (#CFHE12)

  1. Okay, so as I read through this I was getting more and more angry with the ridiculous propositions posited as justifiable and right. The rhetoric that because education started as something that only the privileged could afford, then to perpetuate that is justifiable was really, shall we say, annoying, to be polite.

    The challenge to those abhorrent theories almost came too late!

    So, I agree with the rejection of those theories. More importantly, we are at a place where we could actually change the access to education. Not necessarily to the affordability of degrees as we know, nor even to higher education as we know it, but to facilitated learning as Open Education Resources, Open Courses and open anything else that will help people learn and have some chance of changing their relationship to the world.

    The arguments in the publications you have cited ignore the value that education has to improving society as a whole and reminds me far too much of societies in which it is convenient to perpetuate the existence and utility of the disadvantaged.

    I am glad to say I agree with your conclusions.

    • Allyn, thanks for engaging with my blog. I am sorry my blog raised your temperature before dissolving (some of) your anger! 🙂

      I agree with you that providing access to higher education and to resources (e.g., OER) is crucial and may improve our chances of having a more just and equitable society. What increasingly worries me is that access to higher education (in its current format) does not necessarily provide our graduates with access to the markets, a better life, and employment. The reasons for this are multi-layered, but the following comes to mind:
      * I think many of our qualifications and programmes have not kept up to date with changes in employment sector. We therefore produce graduates with competencies that may have become obsolete.
      * It would be very interesting to research how higher education in the past responded to times of economic downturn. Even when our qualifications are in demand, if we are in an economic downturn, unemployment increases and our graduates won’t get employment. If there are currently no real signs of an upward turn in the global economy, how should we respond?

      Regards, Paul

  2. Howard says:

    Paul; this is well written! I’m envious of the way your able to make the piece flow.
    Regarding analysis, I agree with your proposition that higher education cannot unilaterally make these social changes, however, I also believe that common pedagogy has a role in perpetuating this stratification of society. I believe the analysis would be stronger if higher educations role was better exposed.
    When we find someone with a high IQ and an appropriate attitude that fits our pedagogical expectations, higher ed is able to gain class movement for that person and it allows the system to say, “look, it works”. The question is; how do we make it work for those without such cognitive perquisites. A better pedagogical understanding of how to avoid participating in any cognitive based stratification would be a place to start.
    I also disagree, not with the idea that struggle is the basic agency of historical change, but that it’s class struggle interpreted as class resistance toward revolution. In light of various historical examples, Marxism today is rightfully denigrated and usage of the concept of resistance gains more credibility if resistance is better defined. Yes, we must change these “neoliberal market ideologies driving . . . bulimic cycle of consumption”. Maybe we need resistance, but it must be resistance driven by a better vision; by a market that creates substantial value for people, not rent seeking in all it’s egregious neoliberal manifestations.

    • Howard, thanks – you make some great points!

      I really like your statement that “A better pedagogical understanding of how to avoid participating in any cognitive based stratification would be a place to start” – I cannot agree more.

      Your second point is interesting. You wrote – “Maybe we need resistance, but it must be resistance driven by a better vision; by a market that creates substantial value for people, not rent seeking in all it’s egregious neoliberal manifestations.” I am not sure the market will provide a different vision – there is just too much at stake for those with vested interests in the market. Bauman (2012) refers to the work by Tim Jackson – “Redefining prosperity” that questions the notion that growth and prosperity are measured in material production, “rather than services like leaisure, health and education” (p. 96). Bauman continues to petition for a redefinition of prosperity – away from “the conventional trappings of affluence” to “inside relationships, families, neighbourhoods, communities”, etc. (p.97).

      I wholeheartedly agree, but I wish I could believe that this would be possible.

      You can therefore, quite rightly, question my petition for resistance and a revolution, if I do not necessarily believe that the outcome of the revolution would be a (more) fair, just and equitable society. I just don’t have reason to trust human nature… Am I too cynical?

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