Wanted: A higher education system for a global economy

Our view of the purpose of higher education is taking a dangerous step in the wrong direction. As reflected in a recent Bridge article increasingly policy makers and opinion leaders are making the case that Michigan’s public universities should primarily be in the business of preparing students for a professional job in the student’s major with a Michigan employer immediately upon graduation. In a previous post I have dealt with why the immediate job standard is harmful. Here I want to explore why “for a Michigan employer” is just as bad.

For more than a century what it has meant to be a Michigan resident and taxpayer is access at affordable rates to a world class system of public higher education that prepares students to better take advantage of life’s opportunities no matter where you choose to live and work after college. It was one of the great benefits of being a Michigan resident. And it served us well – both as individuals and as a state. All of a sudden there is a movement to constrain our world class system of public universities by cutting state support, imposing price controls and now arguing that the system should give priority to preparing students for jobs that are available today and projected to be available in the near future with Michigan employers. Big mistake!

Our Governor, Larry Page and Eli Broad are among the thousands of kids who grew up in Michigan, graduated from a Michigan public universities and made their fortune elsewhere. Were they well served by our public higher education system? Of course they were. Did they do something wrong – rip off Michigan taxpayers – when they decided to use their terrific education someplace other than Michigan? Of course not. Limiting public higher education to just focusing on the current needs of Michigan employers or what some government analysts think Michigan jobs of the near future will be will inevitably reduce the quality of our public higher education system. Courses and other programming that make a university great will be eliminated because they are not aligned with the needs of Michigan employers. The consequence: the same proportion of the next generation of Snyder’s, Page’s and Broad’s will still choose to live and work outside of Michigan but now they will be far more likely to go to college outside of Michigan as well. They will want an education – as you do for your kids and grandkids – that prepares them for global opportunities, not just those available in Michigan.

And this assumes that we actually know what the jobs of the future will be (here in Michigan or across the planet) and what the skill requirements of those jobs will be. Both of which are extraordinarily difficult to project accurately in an economy being constantly transformed by globalization and technology. Machines will continue to both do more and more of the work humans used to and create new products and processes that will make obsolete current work. And countries from across the globe will increasingly compete with us in a broader set of occupations and industries. Which adds up to a new reality that your job, the enterprise you work for and even your occupation are less secure today than yesterday and will be even less secure tomorrow than today. In that world are we really willing to trust government analysts (or anyone else) to predict what jobs and skills of the future will be that our public universities should be preparing us for?

If that weren’t bad enough, turning public higher education into vocational education for local employers will substantially reduce the attractiveness of the institutions to students from elsewhere. Somehow or the other we have come to view higher education as a supplier to the real economy, not a major sector of the economy. Think again! Higher education is both a growth industry in and off itself and a high wage employer. It is the source of lots of good paying jobs that Michigan so desperately needs. In many regions in the state and across the country colleges and universities are one of – if not the – major employer. One of the reasons for that is their ability to attract students from across the planet. (And our research universities ability to attract billions in federal funding.) All of that would be jeopardized in a system primarily designed to serve the needs of Michigan employers. Why is it bad that we train lots of teachers for a national, rather than just a state, market?  What happened to the economic development goal of expanding high-wage, export-based enterprises? Serving a global market is always better for economic growth than serving a local market. Only in higher education is reducing the customer base of a major sector of the Michigan economy up for discussion. Not smart!

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