Imtiaz A. Hussain
"The world is going to university: But is it worth it?" So began an "Economist" feature article (September 2016). That question must carry a resounding affirmative answer anywhere. For less-developed countries (LDCs), imperatively so: it would be far more disastrous for them to retreat from the education industry just because it has become fashionable in developed countries (DCs) to do so, and particularly when their literacy and growth thresholds happen to be far, far behind to catch up even in one lifetime. This education gap demands the most essential input to lubricate the most sophisticated innovative infrastructures to produce the most qualified graduate students in greater numbers. Since today's inventors and innovators emerge only from flocks of thousands of graduate students competing against each other, simultaneous battle-lines also get drawn against technologies adopted: hitherto technologies have successfully displaced physical labour, but to even expect intellectual workers to be automatically substituted by machines is both an exaggerated hope and a visible fear. Machines cannot win that war if there is an ample source of and dependable infrastructure for, top-notch graduate students.
The "Economist" argument is disturbingly true, that artificial intelligence "can do anything [we, humans] can," exposing a workplace reconfiguration that gels far more immediately and resonantly within a DC over a LDC context. No matter how much China, India, and other key economic noise-making countries of the recent past have advanced, and regardless of the startling leaps Bangladesh, Malaysia, Mexico, Indonesia, and the Philippines have registered, among so many others at far lower thresholds where too many people still live below the poverty and literacy lines, it would be foolhardy not to expand education accesses urgently: in addition to dragging the economy down, a weighty underclass reinforces and intensifies income equalities at all levels, not to mention divert potentially productive knowledge into threatening alternatives, like rebellion and anti-establishment activities. Not only would a large underprivileged class sap any economic reforms, but some key conditions for democratic reforms would also be derailed. Add women to the picture in largely male-dominated societies, and one can conceptualise how privilege can be an all-too-hard nut to crack.
Post-industrial society (PIS) can only thrive and remain self-sustaining if innovations continue to both flow and fetch the income manufacturing factories once did. Many of the developed countries entering that PIS league also find themselves with new constraints: environmental protection, among many other grassroots, concerns, such as feeding an increasingly bulging pension fund, upholding a vast network of standards, rules, and regulations, while also guaranteeing gender fairness and preventing white-collar crime; and then finding LDC foreign students who venture to seek higher education returning home with the very skills that might return to haunt their DC counterparts through low-wage imports and off-shore industry migration. Whereas the former set of dynamics (environmental, for example), represent unavoidable nuisances that must be corrected with the new technologies being generated, the latter (global production networks), should not be allowed to degenerate into a zero-sum attitudinal confrontation between the two types of countries (DCs versus LDCs). Both require continuous efforts and resources, but most of all DC-LDC cooperation regardless of economic thresholds.
The LDC dilemma can become starkly more expensive and a source of downwardly-spiralling welfare nightmare in both DC and LDC blocs. Reference was previously made to deepening domestic inequalities with the growth of AI (artificial intelligence) islands, amid the democratisation process, either in its initiation stages (China) or consolidation (almost everywhere else). These may escape adequate attention if the growth catalysts (booming remittances, low-wage export booms, commodity surges), bring in far too much cash than can be quickly converted into infrastructure-building, adroitly invested elsewhere, or absorbed in some other fashion: there is not only the nuisance of the inadequately educated nouveau riche sliding into exciting AI job-inducements without fully completing his/her education, or pushing it to the limits and beyond (in other words, using singular AI knowledge to postpone comprehensive classroom training), but also finding those very skills becoming too transient to keep the same job for too long. When the (external) income pipeline slows down or stops, recriminations inevitably follow: retrenchment of uncompetitive domestic workers domestically, or retaliating against the exporting low-wage country abroad. Coping with these undermines business success, so much so that every person and country misses a win-win outcome.
For those in both DC and LDC categories, endogenous education-related or technology-driven circumstances have, of late, yielded to more powerful exogenous forces, such as terrorism. There is perhaps no other threat more compelling to make the case for education and innovation than terrorism: education exemplifies the tools Muslims could use to combat fanatics and extremists, just as many U.S. Millennial youth have used to express their growing native sentiments and protectionist thinking because the going (finding jobs) is getting rough; while innovation still works magic to reduce the DC-LDC income gap while opening new windows of competitiveness (though, unfortunately, only for the handful).
Bangladesh's case should not be overblown. With more universities now than ever before, it is still only in the early stages of any education renaissance. As newspaper reports indicate, our 38 public universities today account for increasingly lower proportions of the students who graduate from their intermediate examination, as the country's 91 private universities take larger chunks each year. Any private sector boon strengthens the money-making element. With education there is no exception. This might explain why it is taking so long for private universities to fill up some highest-level university positions, as recently raised in the media. Yet, none of our private universities can be found in any world university-ranking list, for example, the 900-strong QS World University Rankings list for 2016-7, or the corresponding Times Higher Education list of a similar size. Only one university made the first of those lists, that too, a public university, Dhaka University, exposing how much more we must go and the mileage we must make to even enter the education ball-park. Without a foot inside that large body, there is not much one can expect in terms of invention or innovation - in fact, the reverse tendency to copy-cat or plagiarise not only grows, but soon becomes so institutionalised, it evolves as a "norm." Without beefing up our public universities financially, even that one global listing may quickly disappear.
Milking education without bilking innovative capacities ultimately unleashes a vicious cycle: grade inflation helps market the university at the expense of pedagogical enhancement, then when a job prevents the graduates from pushing the knowledge frontiers, the necessary factor behind innovation and invention simply evaporate, even before being institutionalised. One obvious consequence: every "next generation" of students target commensurately lower accomplishment thresholds while paying increasingly higher fees. Everyone is left worse-off, from students, teachers, and scholars within academia to the business owners pulling the strings. When we busy ourselves counting educational investment income, infrastructure-building for innovation gets relegated into a non-vital consideration. Everyone loses.
Behind this institutional malaise lies the structural gap, reflecting our socio-cultural inheritances: either out of poverty or discrimination of sorts (education being gender-based, marriage-determined, religion-infused, class-filtered, and so forth), a vast proportion of our children have not been, and in our lifetime, will never go, through enough education to contribute to their own enhancement, thus leaving the net effect of this to drown out the isolated efforts of the handful trailblazers conscientiously probing the technological frontiers. Innovations and inventions under the circumstances only ring bells on doors that do not, or cannot, open. Behind thresholds lie confidence levels; and the longer the low-confidence stretches historically, the shorter its future shadow is fated to be, with the extent of education, innovation, and invention being the commensurate price paid.
If there is an exit, unfortunately, it is with public universities since only the government can supply the physical resources for research, development, innovation, and infrastructure-building. Competition for profits in the private sector hinders growth along these lines; but public-sector resource-infusions would have to be staggering and successful to attract ample private university interest. That is a tall expectation in an age when accumulation trumps distribution.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.