Massing of education

While the terms ‘mass or universal elementary education’ and ‘higher education’ have been in global vogue for about the preceding three centuries, ‘mass higher education’ is new and certainly a postWWII idea.

Massing of education


While the terms ‘mass or universal elementary education’ and ‘higher education’ have been in global vogue for about the preceding three centuries, ‘mass higher education’ is new and certainly a postWWII idea. To illustrate: global Gross-Tertiary-Enrolment Ratio was 10.1 per cent in 1972 and now it is much above 40 and increasing by one per cent per year ~ popularly described as its ‘massification’. Apparently, this phenomenon appears pretty welcome, and few bother about its origins, evolution or wider ramifications.

But it is high time that these latter questions are systematically investigated and evaluated at least in view of the contemporary phenomenon of declining global standards and quality of higher education/learning. During WWII itself, the UK’s (coalition) government planned for an ambitious programme of post-war ‘social reconstruction’ in which education would play an important part by achieving social equality through a ‘better system of education’ available equally to all, irrespective of means. This marked an innately contradictory emphasis in favour of wider participation in higher education (HE) for achieving ‘social equality’, albeit within a fiercely capitalist framework/ system which inherently breeds economic inequality.

During this period, the USA too embarked on a rapid expansion of HE with the aim of augmenting the production of scientific knowledge, skills and personnel, albeit with a strong synergy with private industry/capitalists. Thus, even during WWII there was a ‘call’ in the capitalist bloc for breaking away from what they sarcastically called the ‘elitist’ structure of traditional HE/university. And in its immediate aftermath a rapid public-funded expansion of colleges, universities and other research institutes had taken place in these two influential countries purportedly for augmenting the pool of scientific talent as well as social equality within academically ‘able’ youth of all sections of population, ability being judged in terms of secondary school scores obtained.


After the invention of the notion of ‘human capital’ in the early 1960s, a newly evolved academic branch named ‘Economics of Education’ flourished briskly in terms of theoretical and empirical research funded lavishly by massive benefaction of giant corporate funding organisations as well as major multilateral agencies including UNESCO, World Bank and OECD. This research with its seductive elegance redefines HE as a private commodity mainly in the form of skills, information, and knowhow that could be manufactured by both private and public investments in building up educational institutions which thereby constitute a fiercely growing competitive industry.

And it also posits with impeccable precision of exposition that rapid expansion of HE in the contemporary context of vigorous technological innovations not only drives economic prosperity, both at macro and micro levels, but it is absolutely necessary for keeping up national and international competitiveness. Thus, a concertedly touted idea of acute necessity for rapid expansion of HE became a new mantra for achieving heavily popularised bliss called ‘economic growth’ across the whole world. Indeed, since the early 1970s a mission of mass or universal HE as a matter of human right came to be mooted formally and popularized explicitly with enormous patronage of corporate funding bodies as well as multilateral agencies initially in Western countries followed sooner or later by the entire developing world.

In feeding into this popularly cherished expansion and privatisation of HE reinforced by rights-based campaigns and affirmative actions, society cannot escape paying a heavy price in the form of steady erosion of eligibility criteria for admission to academic programmes along with drastic dilution of academic curriculum/content in diverse forms and guises, so that naturally-ordained larger mass of lower-ability/motivation students are increasingly accommodated towards making an institution/university both commercially viable/profitable and democratically sensitive to the masses’ right to HE. For example, overall acceptance of applicants for admission to UK’s HE institutions in 1996- 2001, as per a major study, is found almost exponentially surpassing the respective estimated/ expected levels calculated by applying the initial rate of acceptance in 1996.

This clearly signifies a rapidly falling standard of entry requirements at UK universities, and thereby a lowering of overall quality/standard/talent of learning. Another significant American study reveals that despite devoting much less effort to activities directly related to learning than their counterparts of the 1960s, the students of the 1990s happen to have scored higher grades than those garnered by the older students, pointing clearly to both ‘grade inflation’ and increasing readiness on the part of academics for compromises with standard/ quality of higher learning. These worrisome trends are found to be valid across all institutional types ~ private or public.

With UNESCO’s initiatives, an International Commission for Development of Education was established in 1970, which in its 1972 report entitled Learning to be: The world of education today and tomorrow for the first time introduced a neverthought-of-before educational paradigm called ‘Lifelong Learning’. By the end of the 1970s there had been piles of official reports in many countries with a single common theme, namely ‘planning for education throughout a citizen’s life’.

While the world has been witnessing technological progress over at least two and half preceding centuries, the need for mass higher education has never been invoked prior to the post-war ascendency of pro-capitalist neoliberal thinking, which ruthlessly defied the long history and tradition of educational thinking/ philosophy and rushed to radically redefine aims/goals of HE as being, in one scholar’s words, “acquisition of spurious and fictitious ‘skills’ (such as telephone skills, communication skills, information skills and even, I believe, life skills)”.

No matter the elegance/ precision of new theoretical arguments, ideas and evidence carefully harnessed in defence of mass or universal HE worldwide since WWII, business dimensions, capitalistic pecuniary interests and private corporate underpinnings of an ever-expansionary market for HE degrees and diplomas evidently appear to have been inextricably linked. All this has however eventually brought in a crisis of HE globally, especially in the form of low standard/quality of higher learning resulting thereby in mounting complaints of employers in trying to find truly ‘employable’ persons amid plenty of degree-holders.

As these post-war ‘new’ or ‘novel’ ideas advocating an everwidening access to HE/university for avowed economic growth, coupled with drastic dilution of academic content and curriculum contingent upon the necessity of accommodating academically lower ability students, spur inevitably a process wherein higher learning/education tends to become more vocationally-oriented than academic and scholarly, there emerges both a declining trend in overall standard/quality of HE generally and an acute dearth of people who do, or can do, or wish to do, basic original, inventive and independent research in particular to bring in new breakthroughs and higher intellectual heights ~ the hallmarks of modern civilizational progression

(The writer is former Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor, Central University of Allahabad, Prayagraj. This article draws on his recent monograph titled Higher Education and Intellectual Retrogression: The Neoliberal Reign (London/New York: Routledge, 2023)