A catalyst for change

The continuing universalisation of higher education reflects the growing democratisation of knowledge around the world. In this emerging paradigm, higher learning is no longer the province of the knowledge elite, but is increasingly available to all. For instance, with the move towards open educational resources, massive open online courses, open universities, and the like, access to higher learning is now available to virtually anyone.

In many respects, the continued de-monopolisation of higher learning allows for greater political, social, economic and personal empowerment.

Democratising knowledge for all

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Arguably, the first significant democratisation of knowledge occurred with the advent of the Printing Revolution in the 15th century with the invention of the printing press.

The wide-ranging utility of the printing press laid the foundation for future political, social, economic and scientific revolutions such as the Renaissance and the Reformation, which paved the way for mass learning and the modern hyper-connected global knowledge society.

In terms of impact on mass learning, the printing press was to the 15th century what the public library was to the 19th century and what the internet was to the 20th century.

These are revolutionary moments in the development in human history because knowledge acquisition, and the increased capacity for learning that it produces, is necessary for the progress of society and human development. These revolutions are important because they continue to provide people greater degrees of access to social and economic opportunities than they would otherwise have had.

As a result, the line between expert knowledge and lay knowledge has also become increasingly blurred as more people become both consumers and producers of knowledge. Thus, the role of education and learning has become so necessary to modern life that many now view lifelong learning as a human right.

In turn, the role of higher education as the main provider for higher learning opportunities has expanded from research-driven producer of knowledge to catalyst for the production of cultural capital.

Unfortunately, however, some cultural beliefs and practices persist to favour the interests of historically privileged segments of society, which in turn may be reflected in institutional practices and attitudes, such as elitism.

The dialogue around widening participation must not only address the under-representation of groups that have been historically excluded from higher education but the dialogue must also address the mind-set of elitism and exclusivity where these practices often stem from.

Therefore, extending the democratic social contract to all requires a paradigm shift towards a mind-set of inclusivity, rather than exclusivity.

Rights, agency and empowerment

Although much progress has been made in the last few generations to open higher education to more people, obstacles to access and participation still linger. In some countries, stubborn patterns of under-representation continue to plague higher education.

Nevertheless, the continued democratisation of knowledge can be viewed as both a natural consequence of the evolution of human progress and a positive trend towards establishing lifelong learning as a human right.

A human right is a universal right that is also a moral right. Human rights are often given official status through universal declarations by supranational organisations like the United Nations.

Both basic education and higher education are now widely considered human rights. However, whereas basic education is considered universal and compulsory, higher education is considered universal and voluntary (that is, not compulsory and not prescriptive).

The development of personal agency and empowerment is the common denominator that cuts across all levels of education. This is accomplished mainly through the teaching-learning process. Personal agency is the ability to exercise control over one's own actions (that is, to choose to act with self-determination and volition).

The more oppressive a society or system the less personal agency one can exercise. Conversely, the freer a society or system the more personal agency one can exercise.

So, a chief aim of a democracy is to allow for the greatest degree of personal agency possible within a just and humane rule of law. Given these basic principles, it seems plausible therefore to postulate that the basic democratic ideals of self-determination and inclusion serve as the underlying mechanisms driving a growing demand for higher education of all types.

These ideas are explained in more detail in my book, Democratizing Higher Education.

Strengthening democracy through lifelong education

Learning is not only a continual lifelong process but also a social process. As such, education at all levels inherently serves multiple purposes – political, economic, social and humanistic – for multiple constituencies.

Therefore, the ultimate aim of education is to promote freedom and responsibility – two sides of the same coin called personal agency. Education is designed to achieve this aim through the production of learning.

In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent globalised knowledge society, knowledge becomes increasingly important. As a result, the need for more prolonged systems of learning also increases. In the modern era, a system of lifelong education is most capable of addressing this need.

In addition, one could argue that today’s system of education is so pervasive and so important to human development that it has now become the primary agent of socialisation for people.

Given the scale and complexity of the political, economic and social problems that all societies face, such as environmental issues, poverty, terrorism, and injustice, lifelong education has also become a moral imperative for a better society.

Because hindsight is usually 20/20 in vision, societies often struggle with certain moral questions that, in retrospect, now seem obvious. In this sense, the right to lifelong learning and education is one of the main human rights issue of our generation.

In the final analysis, the heart of the argument for lifelong learning and education is a moral one since education provides a meaningful mechanism to improve social mobility and life opportunities through increased personal agency. While higher education is by no means a panacea to solve all of society’s problems, it is nonetheless uniquely positioned to serve as a powerful catalyst for change.

Patrick Blessinger is the founder and executive director of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association and an adjunct associate professor of education at St John’s University in New York City, USA. He is co-editor with John P Anchan of Democratizing Higher Education: International comparative perspectives.