The last word: “Making noises through our work”

Jyoti Arora

I have recently encountered the profound concept of “triquetra” used in the German science fiction thriller series on time travel titled Dark. Triquetra is the symbol used in ancient Nordic, Celtic, German, and Japanese cultures; composed of three interlaced arcs, it has many interpretations. It often represents the interconnectedness of past, present and future and sometimes of different worlds. It also reflects unity, protection and eternity of life. This is where this book has transfixed me with interconnectedness in the higher education sector (with its own past, present and future) and its interdependence on other sectors. Higher education, especially the public sector, is facing crises in the form of austerity, inequality, inertia and lack of quality education. The COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded disturbing truths about higher education and reminded us that nothing exists in isolation and “everything is connected with everything else” — also referred to as the first law of ecology. The uncertainty and crisis were exacerbated by the war between Ukraine and Russia as well as severe climate changes witnessed by different parts of the world, resulting in exploration of more and alternative resources. None of us, the stakeholders in HE, remain indifferent or untouched by these events. The crisis which HE was already experiencing in pre-COVID-19 times turned into giant waves in the last few years, some demanding immediate routes to navigate. This is where we must learn from history — that human species can transform the crisis for human emancipation and must break deadlocks.

This book has investigated the crisis of HE by critically discussing a wide range of themes: critical pedagogy, reflexive pedagogy, public good, common-community good, commodification of HE, internationalisation of HE, digital pedagogy, ICT and AI in HE, inclusive education, ethics, pedagogy of care and more, connecting markets, state and academic oligarchy.1 The book has opened a Pandora’s box of the higher education sector, looking at HE as a whole more than its parts.

The book has raised important questions about the aim and role of HE which I think should centre around the well-being and happiness of youth, enabling them to strive towards their higher potential2 and empowering each life as “life-long learners” to explore and innovate solutions for the problems (micro and macro) that humanity is grappling with at large. However, when it centres around the narrow goal of receiving credentials based on the “skills” to gain employment, the transformation of critical minds for human emancipation remains dubious. This reflection is pertinent in these times when markets and new public management (NPM) are guiding the outcomes of HE and we, the students, are considered as “products”. What worries me as a young scholar is not the opportunity cost of pursuing higher education, but the uncertainties in HE, the dynamic and newer demands of HE and the trade-offs between global, national, and local aspirations in HE. These all create pressures on us young scholars to make ourselves “visible” in the academy, visible enough to get placed with permanent tenure (rather than working as adjunct faculty or researchers) and to “deliver” the expectations of the HE market. Who sets these expectations or targets? Who is “capable” of achieving these targets? Do these targets acknowledge and respect my social reality? Do we have a level playing field for everyone in the HE sector? Is the role of faculty or researcher just to teach enough and publish to meet time-bound targets? Once we are conscious of the broader aims of higher education, it will take us to the next step to discover new possibilities and alternatives for sustainable futures by understanding our roles and responsibilities as educators, researchers, and students.

Another central concern which the book has invoked is the crisis of public universities and “publicness” in HE. Around the world, including in India, austerity in HE has created tensions between expanding access and universalising HE, especially for public HEIs which are dependent on the state for resources. There is pressure on public HEIs in India to initiate self-financed courses and collaborations to generate revenues. The bigger question is who will lose more or who will get “pushed out of the system?” Which institutions will thrive, and which will perish? Also, the austerity experienced by the sector is impacting students who are in genuine need and demotivating them to enter or continue HE. In India, there are cuts and delays in scholarships for students from disadvantaged sections of society. Moreover, New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 proposed education financed through loans, disregarding the socioeconomic inequalities in India and lessons derived from developed countries like the USA. While scholars like me who are working in the disciplines of social sciences and humanities struggle to get funding and other support, STEM programs are relatively well funded (for both teaching and research) as they are perceived (by state and markets) to contribute directly to “knowledge production”.

One of my takeaways from this book is about creating inclusive spaces for voices of the powerless, minorities, and disadvantaged. We need to co-create structures for discourses which are not elite or even mainstream as what is widely accepted by the majority is not the only marker of “knowledge”. If we succeed in embracing the diversity of people and perspectives, I think HE will provide us opportunities to come together to collaborate and learn the facets which are still hidden beneath the commonly accepted domains of knowledge. This would help us to challenge and enrich already accepted knowledge. We also must prepare ourselves to deal with classrooms having learners with diverse needs and contexts — a learner who could be a refugee, differently-abled, transgender, first-generation, Black, and/or poor. This diversity is more nuanced for developing countries like India where dimensions of caste, religion and language are added. India is struggling to understand these needs and diversity and possible approaches to restructuring institutions. However, the process is very slow. As faculty, I would reimagine myself as a reflexive agent and have empathy and compassion for my companions who do not have the opportunity to negotiate, in order to meet their needs. In addition, we must develop flexible forms of learning as well as learning environments and assessments to embrace inclusivity in our systems. This is certainly very demanding terrain. I think “assessment and evaluation” as an area has received less attention than needed in the discourse of HE. It is critical to question here, as this book has, the purpose of assessment: What do we want to assess? Why do we want to assess? What do we want to achieve through this assessment? Is it possible to objectively assess the subjective realities of learners?

Technology and AI have emerged as powerful tools in the 21st century to create flexible structures in HE. It has helped to break the physical barriers of distance and expand learning and collaboration, especially for first-generation learners and students who are at the margins. Many of my friends, including me, could attend lectures, webinars and conferences organised by reputed institutions almost for free or relatively less cost during the pandemic lockdowns. In this way, technology opened paths to access and tapped into opportunities, especially for scholars in developing countries. Moreover, open and online distance learning has emerged as one of the alternatives for continuing life-long learning and has the potential to address inequalities to some extent, thus contributing to SDG 4, the sustainable development goal to ensure inclusive quality education.3 It has certainly widened access to digital resources although at the same the digital market is differentiated by quality and cost. Furthermore, revenue generation may be based on the branding of the service providers rather than the quality of the resources.

This book has provoked me to ask these questions — this is also good! Who can access technology and who cannot? Who has the power or control over its design, availability, and usage? Should knowledge be free? Is technology inclusive? Are we focusing on building digital capabilities embedded in ethics, care, and justice? Are faculty trained to meet changing roles and expectations given digital and ‘glonacal’4 interfaces? What’s happening with edtech — mergers and acquisitions — moving towards oligopoly and monopoly rather than having a competitive market? How to ensure quality and credibility? How are state policies pushing edtech recklessly and what is its impact on sustainability in HE? Certainly, there is no “one” concrete answer to each of these questions. There are great opportunities and scope in the domain of technology in HE, but there is no escape from the need to regulate it. This is where the role of a nation state is crucial — to regulate the “bull” of technology for credible, quality, and affordable online education which can be accessed by all. Moreover, with rampant increases in technology in HE, the boundaries between the private and public sector are blurring. This will impact the future and “publicness” of HE.

I have no intention of saying that technology is a substitute for a university. For instance, many of my friends could not afford to buy a laptop or access the internet during the COVID-19 lockdowns and could not access educational resources from their homes. There was significant time lost on their research since they were dependent on university premises to access digital infrastructure. Also, most of us missed interacting with our peers or colleagues and literally prayed for lockdowns to end. Human interaction beyond virtual boundaries is important for us as social animals and no level of AI can replace this essence. The university has its own life and culture beyond classrooms and the “expected learning outcomes” of our academic program, like discussions over coffee and tea, students’ elections, cultural programs and fests, conferences, seminars, etc. The transformations that we experience over time by being in the university are the lessons which were never deliberately taught nor explicitly learned, but which shape us — our personality, thoughts, aspirations. This is where this book has questioned the extent to which technology and AI can support lifelong learning and why the very existence of the university is crucial. There is a need to use these tools wisely and cautiously to empower educators and learners, and not pose threats to their privacy and rights.

Furthermore, this book has also made me, a student of economics, doubt (and yeah “doubting” is good!) some of the basic assumptions of economics — the belief that we can determine or develop a path with the highest possible equilibrium, balancing resources, political culture, policies, and other factors. Clearly, there is no one future but alternative futures which are not deterministic, and we all aspire towards better combinations over time. These combinations are different for different individuals and groups, and no one set of parameters can clearly define or assess “the ideal” or “the best” — which is what ranking agencies try to do. Higher education for good, unlike any other commodity, cannot be replicated. Human capital is embedded, and the best is always in process of evolution — from its own past, towards its own future in its own world. Hence, imitating successful strategies and confining them in an index of scores ignores the untold success stories of people and systems who evolved them. Every ranking agency follows its own perception of a good institution and best outcomes. But what is missed is the “process” which is unique to its own context. The best itself is in process, unforeseen and evolving. There could be lessons, different models to strive towards better systems, but rankings cannot be ends in themselves. Such myopic ideas of higher education and university are detrimental rather than striving to improve quality.

I think there is a need to “open” or reopen the democratic spaces within the universities where non-formal talks among peers and students have their own mandates or urgency, but which has become lost in universities’ neoliberal processes. Formal spaces in universities have been captured by research outputs, and formal and regulated conversations in the “managed” universities. It is the non-formal deliberations, dialogues or talks which also shape and ignite ideas and creativity in young scholars. This reminds me of John Nash (from the movie A Beautiful Mind) who had the thirst to find “path-breaking” ideas in game theory. He found this by observing real patterns and conversing with his friends in the classroom. This book has provided us, the authors, and readers precisely this: the freedom to choose these non-formal spaces to freely express our thoughts and reflections through different genres (articles, poetry, stories, reflective cases, etc.), provocations and a range of ideas centring around the broader theme of HE for good that embarks on or ignites creativity.

So where is the hope? Borrowing from another interpretation of triquetra, hope is in finding union and harmony when faced with opposing forces (global, national, local) and dualistic manifestations in higher education from within or outside. Hope is right here. In other words, ‘hope’ is in resistance, resilience and reimagination, as this book argues. To me, it lies in the resistance from the past (opposite forces), resilience in the present (towards recovery) and reimagination of the future. It is in reimagining the idea of university transcending “infrastructures of extraction” to that of “infrastructures of care” without which we will not be able to take care of people and the planet. It is in reexamining the mission and futures of the university and not surrendering the public good, community good and global good character of HE. I agree that we must imagine futures that people do not know but need to know and have the right to know. When we, young scholars, talk of hope we must remind ourselves that we owe responsibility and debt towards future generations to hand over the planet at least better than what it is at the present. Every possible effort should be made to make the world a better place. I think we must safeguard the “publicness” of HE by creating noises for policy makers and managers of HE, and we must continue making these noises through our work as this book has done, especially when there are attacks on democratic spaces to suppress our voices. Let’s continue striving with such endeavours with even more vigour and let’s continue shaking the universe of HE through our ideas and the power of words to explore more pathways towards HE for good.

Acknowledgements: I extend my gratitude to the editors of the book, Prof. Laura and Dr. Catherine; copy editor, Larry Erhuvwuokhene Onokpite; Prof. Saumen Chattopadhyay and Dr. Binay Kumar Pathak for their guidance and valuable comments.

New Delhi, India, 1 October 2022

1 The three vertices of Burton Clark’s Triangle

2 Based on the principles of Soka Education

3 Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

4 The term ‘glonacal’ [glonacal = global + national + local] (p. 177) is borrowed from Marginson, S. (2004). Competition and Markets in Higher Education: A ‘Glonacal’ Analysis. Policy Futures in Education, 2(2), 175–284,

Powered by Epublius