The 21st century has been anointed “the century of the knowledge economy.” It is a world where corporations such as Google are worth more than the entire annual GDP of Bolivia. As Nobel Laureate Joseph Stigiltz remarked, “everything indicates that education will be much more important than before (…), the world is now rapidly moving from manufacture to service industries, just as the Great Depression marked the shift between agriculture and manufacture.”
Thus, it is paramount for the global leaders of today to pursue amelioration within their respective educational systems, as they strive to create their share of innovative thinkers in the ideas economy. However, with student enrollments increasing, and fiscal budgets tightening, the future prospects for global higher education look difficult.
In the United Kingdom, the government coalition has enabled large education cuts, with university tuition fees tripling starting from 2012. In the United States, publicly-subsidized universities, which were once havens for working-class families unable to afford the astronomical costs of private universities, are now having to increase prices as government subsidies begin to decrease. According to Tamar Lewin from the New York Times, “tuition bargains are fading as the nation’s public universities undergo a profound shift”, which has forced “tuition payments, not state appropriations” to “cover most of the budget.” The blame for this is frequently attributed to recession, and although it is true that general austerity in government spending is a distinct factor, analysts such as economist Doug Henwood have maintained that it would be fairly easy to make higher education across the United States free. Less than 2% of the American GDP accounts for educational spending – an equivalent of one-fourth of the annual Pentagon budget. These budgetary priorities are evidently preposterous.
South of the border, Latin America faces a different array of problems. One of the greatest successes of many Latin American educational systems is their ability to maintain free, even open-admission universities around the region. Large-scale public universities such as the University of Buenos Aires, or UNAM in Mexico, are free for hundreds of thousands of students. However, according to the OCDE, only 27% of young people in the region go to university. Furthermore, teachers and professors are severely under-paid, and many facilities and institutions lack significant funding. Contrarily to the United States and the UK, government endowments aren’t substantial and corporate or alumni sponsorships are rarities. As evidenced by the recent student protests in Santiago, Chile, it is increasingly becoming more problematical for Latin American governments to maintain their low or free fees, whilst simultaneously striving to maintain high quality standards.
In Africa, the percentage of students in tertiary education is substantially lower than in Asia or Latin America. According to Christopher B. Mugimua of Makerere University in Uganda), “traditionally, African governments have wholly financed higher education”, but now, due to recommendations from the notorious International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, “ governments were advised to reduce their national budgets on higher education and to constitute cost-sharing policies.” This has led to many students having to miss out on university spots due to the tuition fees, and only those who can afford the price of education are able to pursue a university degree.
Around the world, we are slowly seeing signs of tertiary education becoming more expensive and more inaccessible to the world’s underprivileged. Systems that have long pledged to be meritocratic are now only reachable by those with some form of financial guarantee. Higher education is an inalienable and absolute human right and we must treat and analyse it as so. This is declared in the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), which states in Article 13 that “higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”
In many ways, measures for financial austerity are required by the post-recession economies of the world. But we cannot be frugal with education. There will be many challenges in the 21st century, but the most looming predicament seems to be climate change and the severe, indefinite consequences it will bring. Dealing with such a colossal problem will require much innovative and creative thought, and the formation of new thinkers that can come up with world-shifting solutions will be vital. Climate change aside, tertiary education available to all can lead to a variety of beneficial outcomes: more qualified employment, a diminishing gap between the affluent and poor, a generally more educated populace, among many others. In the famed counter-textbook “The Outline of History”, renowned author H.G Wells commented, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” If conditions don’t improve, Wells might be just right. /