In “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the common good” Prof. Michael Sandel, with his experience over four decades as a Harvard University lecturer, provides significant detail on his observation of the growth in competition for positions at universities perceived as being for the elite. He also discusses the consequences of those changes on students and families, including the costs to their mental health as the pressure to succeed has increased, first in being accepted into the university, then in attaining good marks in a highly competitive environment, and finally in their career. Prof. Sandel highlights that increasingly over his tenure acceptance to an elite ‘school’ has been viewed as a pathway to an ‘elite’ career, and all of the trappings that go with it in a culture which places a high value on credentialism (i.e. the lifestyle of the ‘elite’), but that it comes at a significant cost even to those who ‘succeed’ through that system.
Moreover, because there is a perception that so much is to be gained from that career pathway, most young people (and their families) vying for placement attempt to use whatever advantage they have to put themselves at an advantage in the selection process to those elite schools. Most of these advantages involve generational advantage, including wealth, and some even use those resources to cheat the tough selection process.
There is also the impact of luck, starting with the fortune or misfortune to be born into a privileged or underprivileged home. Prof. Sandel suggests many ‘products’ (graduates) of the system do not nearly appreciate the role luck has played in their privileged position, thus leading them to insist that their success was a result entirely of their own doing in a true meritocratic system. As a consequence these people tend to believe that they earned, and thus deserved, their ‘elite’ lifestyle whilst others who did not succeed deserved their less favourable lifestyles.
Prof. Sandel proposes that a lottery should be held amongst those vying for placement at these elite schools as an acknowledgment that most applicants are capable of succeeding once they are accepted, negating the role that privilege has in giving varying levels of advantage to some over others, and perhaps most critically, to make it explicit that fortune was the greatest factor in acceptance to elite schools.
The greatest impact of such a lottery placement system over the medium to long term was considered to be the lessening in the role of credentialism in status which leads to polarisation within society because the role of ‘dumb luck’ has been made explicit.
I do consider that Prof. Sandel’s suggestion is both worthwhile and brave of him to raise, though the cynic in me leads me to wonder whether he would have done so if he was much closer to the start of his career than the end of it as many, having gained significant advantage from the contemporary situation, no doubt would like to see it perpetuated. Here I also need to admit that my perception is affected by living most of my life in a nation where the stratification of the status of the various universities is not nearly as embedded in the culture as it is in America. In Australia the ‘sandstone universities’ are the most prestigious, certainly, but the university attended is not (yet) nearly as determinant of career ‘success’ as in America, and is almost insignificant after having entered the workforce.
Still it is the nature of a wealthy society to highly prize the very best and scarcest of all things that are valued, whether it be jewels, well-positioned real estate, or fine wine. Within a society with great wealth, competition for highly prized and scarce resources can catapult market prices to rather disproportionate and, perhaps, irrational heights. Having developed a passion for wine after living in France I will use the wine market as a useful and instructive comparison.
Rare old bottles of great wines do reach the highest prices at auction, but there is a great diversity of prices paid for wines at their release. That, too, is driven by scarcity, of what is known as terroir (the best sites to grow wine grapes) in the few regions that have a long history of producing exceptional wines, and of great years when weather conditions for growing and harvesting grapes were ideal. The wines from the most prestigious wineries, such as Château Cheval Blanc or Château Petrus, in the best years are very difficult to access and sell for as much as $3,000 a bottle even before they are actually bottled (most quality Bordeaux is sold ‘en primeur’ while still aging in barrels). In other words, elites pay a price equivalent to around $600 per glass for a wine that will not be at its best drinking for another 10 to 20 years.
Now I know that I will never have that experience of tasting one of these great wines – leaving aside the reality of the truism that ‘there are no great wines, just great bottles’ reflecting that after the passage of many years there can be great variability in the quality of the wine for very many reasons not least of them the randomness inherent with the cork closure – but that does not concern me greatly because I know that with widespread education in wine making, and readily-available wine critic reviews, I can purchase wines that are perhaps 98-99% as good as these prestigious wines for less than 1% of their price. It is only for image and perception that someone would consider purchasing a bottle from a prestigious winery from a less favourable vintage (year), for say $2,000, when plenty of other better wine from less prestigious wineries is available for much, much less. The only people for whom purchasing these wines makes any sense, in my view, are the elites who do so to stay in good standing with the winery or merchants to maintain their status as preferred customers in great vintages.
For me, however, with my modest means (compared to elites, not the poorest 4 billion human beings), and with a mind for value, i.e. quality relative to price, I will always be happy knowing that I drink very well for the dollars I choose to divert from the resources of our family.
What does that have to do with higher education?
Groupthink in subgroupings and broader society is not always, or perhaps even often, rational and proportionate and people associate many values with brands and symbols which may or may not even be relevant. Billions of dollars are spent annually on advertising in an attempt to influence and speed up that process. A perception of scarcity can transform a prized commodity into a prestigious one.
The American culture has ascribed a great many attributes to an education from an elite school. The scarcity of places relative to applicants has transformed acceptance to one of them into the equivalent of winning the lottery such has been the prestige associated with these institutions.
I am unsure, however, how much of that prestige actually relates to the quality of education provided there. While I am certain that, just as in Prof. Sandel, there are very many fine professors, I truly doubt that, as in the wine market, the quality of the education received there is that much better than what is available elsewhere from other good but less prestigious institutions.
I believe that, like many things in the Great Reset era, and as a consequence of measures to combat, and as a response to, the COVID-19 pandemic, changes that were already in train within the higher education sector have accelerated and will profoundly change the higher education sector throughout the world. Many of those changes will act to reverse the growing trend of elitism in higher education.
Social distancing and general biosecurity (infection) protocols and measures necessitated the acceleration of technological developments in teaching and learning, and especially proved that it can be done effectively remotely through electronic platforms. Of course this opens up the issues of the economy of scale, and allows the reaching of many more students even across intra- and international borders.
Electronic delivery of education allows elite professors to be more accessible to a more diverse range of students for lectures and special events, even if direct personal contact might be provided by early career academics and postgraduate students as has always been the case. This would effectively increase the supply of positions available in desirable institutions or courses. The main reason why this would not be adopted is essentially because those who are advantaged by the contemporary situation would protest against the perceived ‘devaluing’ of their credentials by the reduction in the scarcity value. I suspect that the leaders of these institutions have always understood the value of scarcity to maintaining the perception of prestige for these institutions.
(Of course, this is the same factor – the potential ‘devaluing’ or reduction in prestige of credentials – that lessens the likelihood of Prof. Sandel’s lottery idea being adopted.)
Thus, I imagine that this is one technological development that might not be harnessed as well as it could be to reverse the elitist trend in higher education as a stepping stone into elite lifestyles. There is another technological development, however, that when taken together with social developments that are accelerating in the Great Reset era, will have a profound impact. These social developments revolve around social justice, equality, diversity and inclusion.
As I discussed in “Quotas Are Necessary To Address Workplace Diversity“, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) holds much promise to address the role of unconscious bias in workplace diversity during recruiting. AI could be used to ‘scrub’ identity from job applications to reduce the incidence of bias in early selection processes, and may even be useful right through to the latter stages (through voice altering software and AI technology when interviewing and answering questions). In that essay I highlighted that one of the barriers to using this technology would be the ego of managers preventing them from letting go of some control, of the need to ‘see and hear’ applicants to gauge their suitability. What people are really doing is observing whether they can find commonalities in how the applicant appears, or in how they speak, or in what they say, which makes the powerful selector feel ‘comfortable’ with that other person. The potential for introduction of bias is clearly enormous.
One particularly strong area for potential connection, and thus bias, is around education and specifically institutions attended by interviewers and interviewees. The truth about the competition to enter elite schools, and the value in attending them even with their enormous course fees, is that it is about the potential for establishing vast networks amongst the elite of society more so than obtaining an elite education.
If workplaces really want to remove biases, while a lottery system for entry to elite schools would work to expose the underlying truth of selection and thus lead to a realistic weighting of such credentials relative to others, in my view preventing the identification of institutions attended from the selection process would go much further towards eliminating biases in selection processes. While I accept that there is bound to be a difference in the standard of education obtained from one of these elite institutions compared with a lowly ranking one in a very large market, primarily by virtue of the privilege bestowed on the elite institutions with multi-generational donations and endowments, this can be adequately allowed for in the selection process by a categorical ranking system between universities (of no more than 3 levels, and in Australia no more than 2 and even that should be debated as to its necessity).
In truth there is absolutely no need to name a specific institution at any time in one’s career, and whenever it is done it is for ego or for the purpose of establishing cultural connection between some, which by definition, excludes and disadvantages others.
Of course, like Prof. Sandel’s lottery idea, widespread adoption of de-identification of educational institutions would be resisted very strongly by the elite, but I expect that this practice will increase as society becomes more committed to removing all forms of bias.
It is simply incongruous with a bias-less society to have elite higher education institutions, and in this day and age of instantaneous electronic communication and rapid global travel intellects can share the same space and collaborate without being in the same physical space.
Most significantly, employers suggesting that they are in a never-ending competition for the best available ‘talent’, yet doing little about constructing the best teams – which have been shown to be the most diverse and inclusive – exposes the truth behind these ‘elite’ workplace cultures.
The flattening of the ‘prestige hierarchy’ amongst educational institutions and competition via online delivery platforms, however, is not the greatest challenge that all higher education institutions confront at present. The changing nature of work is an even greater challenge to the sector and one which to this point the more established institutions seem less willing or able to address.
I suspect that we are on the verge of the most significant shake-up to education globally in over a century which I call the ‘Education Revolution’.
Funding education in the extreme capitalist system that has been adopted by much of the world has been a significant issue for most nations over recent decades. In developing nations the lack of resources and the need to be good debtors has stifled the delivery of education to their younger generations. Developed and more wealthy nations have progressively moved to a ‘user pays’ system which in reality has been students borrowing increasing sums to ‘invest’ in their education hoping that their choices pay off financially lest they remain economically vulnerable. Consequently, the increasing pool of student debt is a significant issue in very many developed nations.
In recent times, however, as technological innovation has progressed rapidly, possibly even accelerating, workforces are being transformed, and, I suggest, quicker than educational institutions have or want to evolve.
Teenagers and even pre-teens are now frequently told that they need to prepare for having many different jobs in their lifetime, as has been the trend for the past several decades, but they are also being told that they will need to be more flexible than earlier generations because of the rate of technological change. They are told that many of their future jobs currently do not exist and that they will even change career paths several times in their lives – some even suggest that many will have 4 or 5 different careers. To move into each new career will necessitate some degree of upskilling, and so it is generally agreed the young and future generations will be continually accessing educational resources throughout most of their lives, unlike previous generations who typically studied a single professional post-graduate course if anything.
It appears, however, that the educational system has not even begun to adapt to this future to meet the ongoing needs of their clients.
Our tertiary education system, for instance, is little different to what has been in place for the best part of a century, about the only differences being that in Australia it was made free for a while and now it is not, again. Three and four year undergraduate degrees and multi-year postgraduate qualifications has remained the standard format for tertiary educators. In recent times the universities have become very dependent on high fees being charged to large numbers of students coming from overseas, mainly developing countries, which has afforded the sector some degree of protection from needing to adapt to provide the education that clients from the developed world will require into the future.
Increasingly over the last half century young people have finished secondary school and then gone on to some form of tertiary learning in either a university or the vocational training system. I was recently surprised to learn from a Grattan Institute report that whereas in 1986 – my final year of secondary education – only 14% of males and 11% of females aged 25-34 had university qualifications, while now around 50% of high school graduates enroll in university courses. I remember being shown in Year 12 a graph of the sharp rise in the proportion of school leavers going on to university to that point in time and being made to feel concerned whether I would obtain a sufficiently high tertiary entrance score to gain entry to my chosen Government-funded course. The Grattan institute report suggested that with the advent of full fees, entry requirements are essentially trivial for most courses as virtually all applicants will be offered a place. While course fees will differ depending on the field and institution, a Commonwealth-sponsored place will cost around $9,000 per year to the student which is often deferred as a debt using the Higher Education Loan Plan.
The trend and numbers are similar throughout most developed nations, though the costs may vary significantly between countries.
What is clear already is that if school-leavers are going to have 4 or 5 careers in their lifetime, perhaps the first one lasting 7 years or less, it seems highly inefficient for society, and imprudent for the individual, to have spent half of that time gaining their first post-school qualification, all of that time accruing debt which may, or probably not, even be paid off by the time that career comes to an end.
This is all the more relevant when one considers how rapidly the structures of professions are changing. In saying that I have in mind an Insight program (on SBS) from several years ago where the skills of 4th year law students close to graduating were pitted against AI software to carry out a task usually assigned to recent graduates. The software completed the task in 20 seconds while the law student was still working on it at the half hour mark!
If the upskilling required to move to a new career is anything like the course undertaken for their first career – preferably taken on in a part-time capacity whilst working on the original career, because studying full-time again would be entirely prohibitive – well it is not difficult to see the next generation still on the hamster wheel having to sprint to stay still all the while taking on debt which for many will never be repaid.
It is obvious that tertiary education is going to need to undertake a major overhaul to provide the next generations with the skills that are needed in a shorter, more condensed time frame and at less cost relative to incomes. Universities may well struggle to adapt and the internationalisation of education online will open up enormous opportunities. I already know of English people living in Italy teaching English over the internet mostly to young Chinese who pay instantly by the minute so that the tutors are also paid into their accounts immediately once the session ends.
Tertiary education is an area that has remained little changed for a long time but I believe it will be unrecognisable in a few decades. And the current prestigious universities will need to adapt to find their niche in order to survive. Nonetheless, I suspect that even greater proportions of young people will access post-school, tertiary education into the future with a combination of broad social studies and highly focused, concise and intense technical programs.
I suspect that a growing element of education, from early childhood through into tertiary education, will be broad knowledge and skills that revolve around social intelligence and civic society – essentially the characters that humans will always value and which we will ‘always’ have an ‘edge’ over machines at. I noted that Prof. Sandel highlights the historic value of developing this knowledge in workplaces, with substantial reading facilities in most workplaces of the past and group breaks for mentorship and discussion. I suspect, however, with the reduction in hours spent in paid employment that role will never fully return to that environment. The education environment is an ideal place for this type of civic learning within a global village context which will be even more critical to leading quality lives in our future.
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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021