Globalization: Impact on Education

by Satish Tandon, September 2005

The principal objective of education has been the development of the whole individual. The minimum level of education that was necessary to achieve this goal in the agrarian society was basic or primary and in the industrial age, secondary. In the present borderless information society, education needs to be able to respond to additional demands of a rapidly globalizing world by raising awareness of environment, peace, cultural and social diversity, increased competitiveness, and the concept of a global village. Such education is to a knowledge or information society what secondary education was to an industrial economy. Education prepares the individual to connect - and live in harmony - with the environment around him. Globalization has changed the size, nature and quality of that environment. The challenge for higher education, therefore, is to reform, create and develop systems that prepare the individual to work in a borderless economy and live in a global society. In other words, our educational institutions need to produce global citizens.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed liberal democracies to claim victory for the capitalist system and contributed to increasing the pace of globalization that was already under way. As globalization gained momentum, market substituted political ideology as the dominant force guiding national and global policies. What followed next, therefore, does not seem so illogical. National governments everywhere - partly in deference to the ascendancy of the market and partly in response to pressure from the private sector to expand their sphere of activities - began to relinquish control over the delivery of social goods. Everything began to be viewed as a commodity that could be produced and delivered by the private sector in line with market forces and according to the principles of supply and demand. One by one - water, electricity, postal services, health, and now education, have been turned into a commodity.

The withdrawal of state from higher education has also been helped by economists, who have had an overly simple way of assessing the return on investments in higher education. The basic problem is that they have measured the return on education exclusively through wage differentials. With reference to someone who has no education, someone who has been to primary school, someone who has completed secondary school, and someone with a university degree, one can ask how much more each earns than the previous. These differences are then compared to the incremental amounts invested in their education to find the return. The results generally suggest that higher education yields a lower return than primary or secondary education - and they have been used to justify the skewing of government budgets and development funds away from higher education institutions.

The rate of return calculations are flawed because they do not take account of the full range of benefits to those who receive higher education. For example, higher education can enhance health, openness, peace, and social development, and at the same time reduce disease, bigotry and blind nationalism - so the private benefits to the individual and to society are not just the direct labour productivity benefits, as the rate of return analysis suggests.

Higher education confers benefits above and beyond enhancing the incomes of those who receive it. And many of these benefits take the form of public goods, such as the contribution of higher education to enterprise, leadership, governance, culture, and participatory democracy, and its potential for lifting the disadvantaged out of poverty. These are all vital building blocks for stronger economies and societies and all routes by which the benefit of investment in higher education multiplies throughout society.

Liberal democracies have traditionally operated on the principle of separation of activities in the social sphere just as they have on the principle of separation of powers in the political sphere. The private sector had been given a relatively free hand in the production and delivery of economic goods while the state concentrated on the provision of healthcare, education and other infrastructure goods, also known as public goods. Globalization has changed all that. The rapid expansion of the influence of the private sector at the global level necessitated a corresponding expansion in their sphere of activities by diversifying into the production and delivery of public goods that had always been within the purview of the state. The takeover was swift and remarkable in the sense that the effort did not meet much resistance.

One of the major consequences of the globalization of education has been commodification and the corporatization of institutions of higher learning. It is said that the for-profit education market in the United States is worth more than $500 billion in revenue for the involved corporates. More than one thousand state schools have been handed over to corporations to be run as businesses. But there is a fundamental problem with the way business models have been applied to the delivery of education and other public goods. Unthinking adoption of the private sector model prevents the development of a meaningful approach to management in the public services in general or to the social services in particular based on their distinctive purposes, conditions and objectives.

There is another, more serious, problem with corporatization of education. Corporations operate on the principles of cost reduction and profit maximization. These require introducing standardization and the packaging of product in compact, measurable, byte-like, configuration. Applied to education, these approaches would possibly negate its basic fabric and purpose. Education has always encouraged and represents openness, inquiry, diversity, research and limitless learning. Corporatization of education would make it elitist - the one provided by corporations for the masses and the poor who cannot afford going to the traditional institutions of learning, and the other for the rich and the affluent.

The delivery of public goods and services is and should remain the primary responsibility of the state. Representative government may not be the ideal or perfect arrangement for governance but it represents the best that is available, and certainly more desirable than the private sector management of public services such as education. If the state relinquishes its control over education and education policy, we run the risk of diminishing it to the status of a packaged for-profit product which it is not. Openness, diversity, scholarship, research and disinterested learning will be its biggest victims.