I won’t bore you with a history of our educational system (I’m also not the most qualified to subject you to that specific flavor of boredom), it should be suffice to point out that our education system was born of enlightenment era values, and is now also informed by industry to produce students with marketable skills. In this way our colleges have, to no small degree, become the gatekeepers for many of the more desirable (and highly paid) opportunities our economic system provides. As such opportunities become more scarce, relative to population, and the disparity between the compensations of those with these coveted positions verses those without becomes more pronounced, the role of gatekeeper becomes more influential. This is not necessarily a fault of the universities; it is simply a reality that provides universities a significant place in the functioning of our economy. In some ways this is good since it provides educational institutions improved funding. It is, however, socially quite unjust. Rising tuitions means that more and more of the best opportunities in our economy will only be attainable by those that can afford them, not those that, by their own merit, have earned them. This is not the first time that honorable institutions have been warped, over time, by power and influence (plenary indulgences anyone?), but, at the pace of the modern world, it will likely be short lived.
Historically speaking, our universities have provided general and trade specific education to individuals under the understanding that, once prepared, the individual will, hence forth, have whatever knowledge is needed to compete in the market. For some fields this is the case and for others it has not been the case for some time. Today’s trends point to an accelerating change towards the latter. The rate of change of information technologies and the rippling of these changes into every aspect of production and business is creating an environment where professionals must constantly learn and adapt to new ways of performing their jobs and in many cases transitioning to different jobs entirely, as their old function is optimized out of existence. Terms like ‘lifelong learning’ or ‘continuing education’ have been used in relation to these changes but the change is far more fundamental. The idea of taking 3-5 years to learn a trade in today’s market is nearly alien. For many occupations, if it takes more than a few months to learn the fundamentals or more than a few days to adjust to changing details of your job, you’re hosed. Fewer things can take 3-5 years to learn because fewer things will be around long enough for such an investment of time.
To better serve the needs of a more dynamic world, universities will need to move away from the existing model of education or be replaced by newer forms of education. For social justice, they should relinquish their monopoly as gatekeepers while doing so. I submit that Universities should decouple their role as educators from their role as gatekeeper. The gatekeeper role is one of certification. When a student receives a degree from Harvard the university asserts that the student has learned a level of knowledge that meets Harvard’s standards. There is no reason to believe that an individual could not achieve that level of knowledge at another university or on ones own so why must a student attend Harvard to get a degree from Harvard. Similarly if an individual wishes to learn but is not interested in a degree (A lawyer with and interest in roman history for instance) there is no reason for this person to go threw all the red tape and admission overhead to become enrolled in a university when all that is desired is access to the information and someone knowledgeable in the field. By decoupling the acquisition of knowledge and education from the certification of obtained knowledge, the university systems can provide more dynamic and more socially just education to a wider audience.