Amidst increasing concerns that higher education does not seem to make a dent in unemployment rates; many stakeholders (including students) ask various questions not only with regard to the purpose of higher education, but also about its curricula, assessment strategies, collaboration with employers and other stakeholders and the different components of post-secondary school education. Faculty members complain that the quality of students entering higher education has deteriorated, employers criticize the unpreparedness of graduates to enter the world of work, and graduates and students find themselves caught in an increasing maze of uncertainty where having a degree will not necessarily open the doors to employment, and join the ranks of the ‘haves’ compared to the growing numbers in the queues of the ‘have-nots.’
There are various responses to the above. Entrepreneurial skills and curricula have become a religion where converts are promised a life of self-employment and riches, employers and regulatory bodies increasingly demand input in curricula threatening to de-accredit institutions and faculties who do not comply, and many corporations start their own universities and training programmes. As funding for public universities continue to decline, higher education institutions have very little choice but to sell out to the highest bidder, the market. Giroux (2013) writes – “Increasingly, even curricula are organized to reflect the sound of the cash register, hawking products for students to buy and promoting the interests of corporations that celebrate fossil fuels as an energy source, sugar-filled drinks, and a Disney-like view of the world.”
According to The Economist (April 27th – May 3rd) “26 million 15-25 year olds in developed countries are not in employment, education or training” (p. 9), a rise of 30% since 2007. The World Bank estimates that about 262 million young people in emerging markets are “economically inactive” resulting in an “arc of unemployment.” Interestingly, the same issue of The Economist questions the belief that economic growth will be the solution – it is now mooted as a “partial solution” (p. 9). Disturbingly, “In North Africa university graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-graduates” (p. 9).
Henry A Giroux is one of the most vocal scholars today questioning the role of higher education’s impact on the lives of millions permanently disenfranchised. Giroux (2013) launches a scathing attack against “predatory capitalism [that] spreads its gospel of power, greed, commodification, gentrification and inequality.” Public education is sold to the “apostles of a market-driven ideology” resulting in many public institutions being closed or privatized (Giroux 2013). Those public higher education institutions that do survive, seem to promise students that a degree will allow them to join the ranks of the ‘haves’ and socially mobile middle and upper classes living in gated secure communities. The reality is, however, that an increasingly small number of graduates do join these ranks and the rest are doomed to join the ranks of those who have “ad hoc, temporary, insecure and part-time jobs” (Bauman, 2012). “Nothing has prepared them for the arrival of the hard, uninviting and inhospitable new world of the downgrading of grades, the devaluation of earned merits, locked doors, the volatility of jobs and the stubbornness of joblessness, the transience of prospects and the durability of defeats; of a new world of stillborn projects and frustrated hopes and of chances ever more conspicuous by the their absence” (Bauman, 2012, p. 47).
While the above picture is indeed dismal, even more concerning are the thousands of youth, often from already marginalized communities, who are not in employment and not in education, the so-called Ni-Ni generation (Bauman, 2012) – who are regarded as “human waste to be relegated to the zones of terminal exclusion”(Giroux, 2013).
Despite the fact that there are many in government and higher education that seem to be quite comfortable with the above scenario, many of us are not.
So how do we break the stranglehold of “predatory capitalism” (Giroux, 2013) on education and prepare students to critically engage with and disrupt the make-belief and fickle world of consumerism? How do we break cycles of poverty, hopelessness and permanent despair? How do we prevent the start of new cycles of “downward mobility” (Bauman, 2012, p. 46) and offer hope to those who “inhabit zones of hardship, suffering and terminal exclusion” (Giroux, 2013)?
The answers to these questions are not simple. A good place to start would be to consider the following:
- We cannot (and should not) isolate education and educational programmes from broader social, economic, political, technological, environmental and legal environments and forces. Higher education cannot, on its own, bring about change in reversing established legacies of marginalization where forces outside of education maintain, perpetuate and benefit from these legacies.
- While higher education can (and should) critically engage with their curricula, their assessment practices and pedagogies, higher education is often (mostly?) on the receiving end of neoliberal funding regimes, legislation and regulatory frameworks. Higher education institutions and individual faculty are therefore, to some extent, held captive by policy, regulatory and legal frameworks preventing more nimble and critical approaches.
- The direct relationship between higher education and the employability of our graduates should therefore be interrogated and redefined. While the inclusion of entrepreneurial skills in curricula is definitely not the sole solution, it may be part of a broadening of the skills set our graduates have. Not every graduate will become an entrepreneur, but at least an increasing number will. There is, however, a caveat…
- I would plead for a critical entrepreneurship aiming at engaging with “zones of hardship, suffering and terminal exclusion” (Giroux, 2013), making a sustainable difference in environmentally sustainable and equitable ways. Should our entrepreneurship programmes just aim to increase the number of acolytes to “predatory capitalism,” we will not break and prevent cycles of hopeless and disenfranchisement.
- We need to design curricula and learning journeys that critically engage with and disrupt the mantra of neoliberal ideologies and rampant consumerism that deny the “massive inequality, social disparities, [and] the irresponsible concentration of power in relatively few hands” (Giroux, 2013). We need to reject curricula and pedagogies that are sterile templates aimed at skills and improving test scores. Our curricula should question and illuminate how past and current relationships of authority, knowledge and power shaped and continue to shape life on earth. “The role of a critical education is not to train students solely for jobs, but also to educate them to question critically the institutions, policies and values that shape their lives, relationships to others, and myriad connections to the larger world” (Giroux, 2013).
- Students also have to accept the responsibility to ensure that their choices of programmes and courses increase their skill set for an increasingly uncertain and fluid world. There is no longer space for claims of entitlement. There are so many free, open and affordable online opportunities available that there is almost no excuse anymore for those who have reasonable access to the Internet. I realize that making use of these online offerings depends on connectivity and the cost and sustainability of connectivity – therefore these offerings will not necessarily be the educational revolution that we need.
- Lastly, no stakeholder can address the immense inequality and “combined forces of a market driven ideology, policy and mode of governance” (Giroux, 2013) on their own. Higher education, NGOs, governments, the corporate sector and alumni need to form oppositional, community-based alliances of hope that strategically dismantle legacies of disenfranchisement and prevent new cycles of poverty and despair.
If our age is an age of “excess, redundancy, waste and waste disposal” (Bauman, 2013, p. 21) with “spectacular spaces of consumption” (Giroux, 2013) on the one hand, and vast numbers of people who are permanently disenfranchised caught in cycles of employment and despair on the other, we can neither plead ignorance, nor have lone-ranger approaches. We need alliances, alliances of hope.
Bauman, Z. (2012). On education. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Giroux, H. (2013, May 20). Marching in Chicago: Resisting Rahm Emanuel’s neoliberal savagery. Retrieved from http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/16478-marching-in-chicago-resisting-rahm-emanuels-neoliberal-savagery
The Economist (April 27th – May 3rd). Generation jobless. The global rise of youth unemployment.