November 17, 2011, by Simon McGrath

Broken Promises? Higher Education and the Global Knowledge Economy

Student unrest seems to be a good indicator for a more general world crisis, whether we think back to 1968 or to events of the last year.  A recent book by Phil Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton, entitled the Global Auction, suggests that student dissatisfaction is likely to rise, at least in OECD countries, and that this will be linked to a fundamental problem with the dominant account of globalisation.

Their book’s subtitle is “the broken promises of education, jobs and incomes”.  In it, they continue with their longstanding critique of human capital theory but they bring the political implications of this far more to the fore than in earlier, less popular books. Essentially, their argument is that the West believes that investment in human capital- most especially through higher education – leads to countries that can compete successfully in the “global knowledge economy” and to individuals who can enjoy the salaries and working pleasures of being “knowledge workers”.  However, they show that if there is a global competitiveness race it will be won by India and China.  They argue that these countries will also capture most of the knowledge work that brings with it high pay and high autonomy.

The result for countries such as Britain is that there will be very few who can expect that hard work and success in education will bring high rewards.  Rather, professional life for the majority of graduates is likely to be one of working harder for less pay; with less autonomy over their work; and with the prospect of severely reduced pensions ahead.

Coming as this does at the time of the sharp increase in tuition fees in Britain, this analysis suggests a massive problem for public policy.  For years, Britain has built its education and training strategy on an assumption of likely success in the “global knowledge economy” as long as numbers could be grown in HE.  The university sector has grown massively and, below it, schooling has been increasingly shaped to ensure quality and quantity of supply to HE.  Yet, the tuition fee rise and the analysis of the Global Auction suggest a radical shift in the cost benefit analysis.

If this is even partially true, then the structure of Britain’s education and economy (as well as those of other OECD countries) is unfit for economic purpose and a whole set of related cultural values (for academic over vocational learning; or for financial services over other sectors) may also need questioning.

Much of the  recent political economy of work and skills has indicated that it is perfectly possible for employers to succeed without investing in skills.  Instead, practices that owed much to the traditions of Fordist mass production and Taylorist scientific management were at least as likely in manufacturing as  Post-Fordist, high skills approaches that saw a new positive relationship between skills and work.  The Global Auction takes this critique further by suggesting that even on the commanding heights of the service economy, Taylor and Ford are alive and well.

Simon McGrath (Professor of International Education and Development – School of Education)

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