Nation Building and Higher Education

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Tomorrow I’m off to the UK for the European Access Network conference in York, England. It’s always fun to travel abroad and learn about access and opportunity issues from of different perspective. As I often mention to my global colleagues, Europe is dealing with issues that the US started dealing with after World War II, for the most part. Since that time, we’ve seen the massification of higher education in a country that similarly massified. Post-War America saw an expansion the world had never seen. Until now, that is.

China and India are obliterating records for growth, not just by population, but also by education. Universities are popping up like dandelions in my front yard. Still, they only let in a small proportion of students to higher education. The European context provides quite a different story burgeoned by a constricting population. While China’s issue is partially about generating access for a growing constituency; the EU is about providing greater access for a stagnant population.

Alex Usher and I tend to talk frequently about European and the former bloc countries. Not just because our travel takes us to these places, but more importantly, because there is much to learn from the EU and Asian evolution.

Take this perspective. You are a country that has an established and historied higher education system. Your economy is stagnant, as is your population growth. You have more people leave than enter, and you are more challenged with losing the valuable youth that your country so desires to reconstitute itself. What would you do?

This is the problem that many countries face. Although the EU has been a critical success in many areas, many countries have enormous economic headaches that seemly overwhelm those of education.

The truth in the story is that nations cannot rebuild without revaluing their higher education systems. This has little to do with the best and brightest. That must be assumed, as most countries have their rarified institutions usually hundreds of years old. They need those students desperately, but perhaps more importantly, they need those who are “very good” and “very bright.” Not just the 3 percent outliers at the top of the distribution. They need to ensure that the top 20 percent are given the opportunity to generate and pursue their goals, which, in turn, can lift a nation. That, still, isn’t good enough, because you ultimately you must provide a beacon of hope for those who are simply good and have potential. Perhaps one could seriously suggest that 50 percent of the country needs some form of postsecondary education, close to what Tony Blair stated a decade past, but far from Bill Clinton’s demand that “everyone” needs a college degree. That still isn’t true. The real issue is who goes and who gets what.

My point is that all nation’s must build in postsecondary opportunities such that a foundation exists for competitiveness, creativity, and nation building. That is ultimately the role of higher education.

Last week, EPI unveiled The Swail Letter on Higher Education, our new data-laden monthly publication on important issues in higher education (see sidebar). The first essay discusses the link between the BA and the workforce in the United States, concluding, in part, that we don’t necessarily need more BAs to increase our competitiveness. But there is one very large caveat that must be taken into consideration, and that is that the entire education system, from compulsory to and through postsecondary studies, must encapsulate the ideal that creativity and learning lead to opportunities throughout life. Without such belief, there can be no nation building; no economic recovery; no belief in country; and no belief in self.

All nation’s need to take a firm look at the entire spectrum of education. Does our system fuel the youth of the nation to take chances and to aspire to greater things? Does it help youth and adults value what others have sacrificed for their freedoms and opportunity? Does it provide the foundation of learning required to help achieve the necessary goals set by the leaders of the country?

My personal belief is that you cannot correctly answer those questions without considering all constituents–all citizens–in the redevelopment of nation. Economic development begins and ends with investment. And investment in human capital–in the youth and young adults of an economy–is the most important form.

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