By ANDREW SHENG: THINK ASIAN
EDUCATION is the most controversial of subjects.
Parents quarrel about the quality of education for their kids, just as societies are deeply divided on education as it defines the future.
Is the current education system fit for purpose to cope with a more complex, fractious future, fraught with possible war?
According to Stanford University’s Guide to Reimagining Higher Education, 96% of university chief academic officers think that their students are ready for the workforce, where only 11% of business leaders feel the same.
As the population and work force grow, the gap between skills demanded by employers and the education received by school leavers is widening, so much so that many are finding it hard to get the jobs that they want.
As technology accelerates in speed and complexity, the quality of education becomes more important than ever. Is it for the elites or the masses?
The Greek philosopher Aristotle recognised that the aim of education is for knowledge, but there was always a different view as to have knowledge for the individual or whether education must prepare the individual to fulfil the needs of society.
Feudal systems hardly paid attention to the masses, whereas most ancient institutes of higher learning were for elites, either for religious orders or in Chinese history, to prepare for civil or military service, but blended with self-cultivation.
Conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has just produced a fascinating study on the implications of higher education for national security.
Covering the period 1950-2040, the study acknowledged that the United States attained uncontested power status, because it had the highest levels of educational attainment and manpower.
In 1950, the United States, with less than 5% of the world’s population, had 45% share of world population aged 25 to 64 with completed tertiary education.
In comparison, India had 5% and China about half of that.
By 2020, the United States’ share had dropped to roughly 16%, whereas China was catching up, whilst India had just under 10%.
By 2040, depending on different estimates, China may double its share to between 15% and 20%, whereas India would have overtaken the United States with 12%, leaving the United States third with 10%.
It is a truism that education matters for economic growth and power.
Every additional year of schooling for children is estimated to add 9% to 10% increase in per capita output.
If you add in “business climate” with improvements in education, health and urbanisation, these factors explain five-sixths of differences in output per capita across countries.
Under the liberal world order, America encouraged the spread of global education, so much so that the global adult illiteracy (those without any schooling) fell from 45% in 1950 to only 13% by 2020.
This worldwide expansion in education was good for the world, but it also reduced the comparative advantage of the education and technology front-runners, particularly the United States.
The AEI study reported that the share of global adult population with at least some tertiary education increased from under 2% in 1950 to 16% today and would approach 22% by 2040.
In 1950, eight of the top 10 largest national highly educated working age labour pool was in advanced countries. By 2020, their share was half.
By 2040, this is likely to be only three out of 10.
In essence, India and China would take the lead in total highly trained manpower, especially in science and technology, with the United States “an increasingly distant third place contestant.”
The AEI study illustrates why increasingly American universities will be more selective in their future foreign student intake, especially in science and technology which may have impact on national security matters.
As late as 2017, MIT manifested global ambitions in its strategic plan, “Learning about the world, helping to solve the world’s greatest problems, and working with international collaborators who share our curiosity and commitment to rigorous scientific inquiry.”
That global vision may be cut back in light of the growing geopolitical split into military blocs. Western universities may no longer be encouraged to train foreign students into areas where they can return to compete in key technologies.
In short, geopolitical rivalry will determine the future of resources allocated to education, research and development and technology.
No country can afford liberal education in which every student is encouraged to do what he or she wants to do.
Students today want to be more engaged in the big social issues, such as climate change and social inequality.
But at the same time, they expect more experiential immersion into careers that are more self-fulfilling.
Instead, institutes of higher learning are forced by economics to provide more shorter term courses to upgrade worker skills, using new teaching methods and tools, especially artificial intelligence, virtual reality etc.
At the national level, governments will push universities into more research and development and innovation to gain national competitiveness, including R&D on defence and national security sectors.
This means that the education pipeline or supply chain will also be bifurcated like global supply chains that are being disrupted and split by geopolitics.
The conversation on what should go into the curriculum for education is only just beginning. Much of this is to do with funding.
As higher levels of education are more expensive, especially in the high technology area, whilst governments budgets are constrained, universities will turn to private sources of funding.
The more society polarises, the more likely that such funding would turn towards entrenchment of vested interests, rather than solutions to structural problems.
Education is controversial precisely because it is either a unifying social force or a divisive one.
One thing is clear, whilst the quantity of educated manpower is critical to national strength, quality may matter more.
The Soviet Union had the second largest share of educated manpower during the Cold War, but it did not save it from collapse.
Will our future education system provide leaders who are able to cope with the complexities of tomorrow?
As the poet T S Eliot asked in his poem “The Rock” in 1934, “where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?”
That question is being asked not just in universities, but by society as a whole.
Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.