World Education Market 2002: <br> Digital deprivation

May 17, 2002

Whatever technology's benefits for some of us, it has not changed the lives of most. But education is key to the places politicians and economists cannot reach, says Brenda Gourley

Higher education has embraced the concept of global delivery in less than a decade. And with this potentially global reach have come the seeds of understanding of a global educational agenda.

In the context of a World Education Market of providers and customers, producers and distributors, public and private partnerships, there is an evidently thriving commerce. This week's conference and exhibition in Lisbon has many developments centred on technology with television, video, print and, naturally, e-platforms and software. There is a real excitement and fervour among the technology producers - the masters of an internet/satellite/broadband universe - for venturing into the unknown and pushing back the frontiers of knowledge and teaching technique.

Major topics are quality, public-private partnerships and opening up education to world trade - possibly through recognition by the World Trade Organisation. These promise an interesting richness of debate. One of the most eye-catching topics is "Successes in bridging the digital divide". This concentrates on making the new communications technologies more accessible to developing countries and disadvantaged communities.

Education is a key to the places that politicians and economists just cannot reach. Perhaps because we think of ourselves as a "knowledge society", we know that education is an important contributor to people's "upliftment" - both as individuals and as societies. We know there is a strong correlation between the level of education of a society and its wellbeing. But do we share our common wealth? Modern information technology has made access to knowledge even more disparate than it ever was. Whatever technology has done for some of us, it has not changed the lives of most of us. Institutions and other agencies responsible for education need to give careful attention to this awful fact.

In India, for example, only 7 per cent of households have internet access, while in Singapore access is close to 60 per cent. In a country as large as the United States, access is more than 59 per cent and in Britain somewhat less than 40 per cent. What these figures do not tell you are the disparities they hide. Here in the UK, a family expenditure survey released last July shows not only the vast differences in access but that those differences relate to income and that they are growing. Single-parent families and pensioners living alone have least access of all.

Social theorist Manuel Castells tells us in very powerful and moving terms that the most striking consequence of the new global network society is its corrosive effect on equality and social justice. In his blunt words, "entire countries around the world and large segments of the population everywhere are becoming excluded". Castells concludes that the system, over time, is not only economically and technologically unsustainable, but socially and politically unsustainable.

A decade ago, Robert B. Reich warned that technological and political transformation "will rearrange the politics and economics of the coming century. There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will be no national economies, at least as we have come to understand that concept. All that will remain rooted within national borders are the people who (have agreed to) comprise a nation. Each nation's primary assets will be its citizens' skills and insights. Each nation's primary political task will be to cope with the centrifugal forces of the global economy that tear at the ties binding citizens together - bestowing ever greater wealth on the most skilled and insightful, while consigning the less skilled to a declining standard of living. As borders become ever more meaningless in economic terms, those citizens best positioned to thrive in the world market are tempted to slip the bonds of national allegiance, and by doing so disengage themselves from their less-favoured fellows."

Thomas Friedman talks about "globalution" or a "revolution from beyond". He likens joining the global economy and plugging in to what he calls the "electronic herd" - the equivalent of taking your country public, only the shareholders are no longer just your own citizens. They are the members of the "electronic herd", wherever they may be and they are voting all the time. They also intensify pressures for democracy - for three very critical reasons: flexibility, legitimacy and sustainability. And you need to be part of that global supermarket because you have stuff to sell and they are the people with money. They can assist in development and they will - if they believe that in the process they are creating markets.

All who specify, buy or produce the materials, systems and ideas that are traded in the world education market must recognise that we are a part of this process and that we have responsibilities. It is not enough simply to have produced the very latest application or piece of courseware. Those of us who deal in the internationalisation of higher education must share a vision that derives from the idea that the world will be better off, healed by educational intervention that engages rich and poor, capitalists and subalterns, metropolis and hamlets, nations and united nations. It is a massive task and a noble one if it does not lapse into the acquisitiveness that characterises so many initiatives that ride the spirit of globalisation. Globalisation is our millennial Zeitgeist, it seems.

I very much like an image evoked by Mary Robinson, on signing the declaration of office as president of the Irish Republic. She said: "The old Irish term for province is coicead, meaning a fifth, and yet, as everyone knows, there are only four geographical provinces on this island. So where is the fifth? The fifth province is not anywhere here or there, north or south, east or west. It is a place within each of us - that place that is open to the other, that swinging door that allows us to venture out and others to venture in."

If we can do these things, then it is even possible to envisage (as Daisaku Ikeda does) "an enchanting, peaceful future when many peopleI will be able to travel a new Silk Road of cultural exchange and mutual understanding".

Brenda Gourley is vice-chancellor of the Open University.

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