“Basic education” should now also include “undergraduate education”

Many wouldn’t dispute the fact that everyone should get free quality basic education, irrespective of their income levels. By basic education, people mean school education. It’s now time to extend the definition of basic education to include under graduation.

Recollecting the rationale behind current consensus on basic education will help us understand the rationale behind extending the definition to include under graduation.

The question thus is — why should government sponsor basic education of children? Economists will tell that education is a public good, there are huge externalities etc. But, this is a misleading argument. Historically, this wasn’t the rationale behind funding school education. People didn’t sit and say “Ok, there are externalities. Let’s fund it.”. Morality was the fundamental rationale.

Depending on the timescale we want to consider, one can trace the roots of debate way back to Aristotle. Those days, even all humans weren’t treated equally in all aspects. It was believed that only some have qualities to vote etc. After numerous struggles, revolutions and debates, people first got rid of divine right theories and got political rights. After political rights, there was new realisation about social rights. After that, slowly other positive rights started emerging — education, health care etc. The strong moral foundations for these were established by thinkers like John Rawls, Amartya Sen etc.

Fundamentally, the point being, the consensus behind government funding of school education is moral. The rationale varies slightly among different thinkers but the basic point is that education and healthcare are crucial to offset inequalities at birth. This argument presumed certain structure of economy, where school education is enough to offset inequalities and give a decent life to a person.

It’s now time to revise these arguments because the structure of economy has changed. School education is no longer sufficient to bridge inequalities at birth. In these days, one needs at least undergraduate education. A 10th pass student is no different from a 7th dropout these days. This is due to what economists call “job polarisation”, where more jobs are being automated creating a void in middle skill jobs. Only two categories of jobs remain — routine manual jobs like gardner which are difficult to automate and the high end jobs that require higher cognitive and professional skills.

In olden days, school education could propel people from routine manual jobs to at least middle skill jobs. With disappearing middle section, school education is no longer sufficient to get decent job. Even 10th graduates have to end up taking up routine manual jobs. The only way out of this is to get into the higher end of jobs, which mandatorily require at least undergraduate education. Thus, undergraduate education has become the new equivalent of basic school education. This calls for more active role of governments in providing undergraduate education to people.

Finances may be an issue here as undergraduate education is costlier than school education. Countries like Germany can afford to make higher education free for everyone. Low income countries may not be able to bear that burden. However, these countries should at least try to reduce the financial burden of undergraduate education as far as possible. If they can’t fund all, they should at least fund the top universities and provide scholarships to others.

In summary, bridging inequalities at birth was important rationale for public funding of school education. This presumes that school education gives decent life. But, times have changed. These days, one requires at least an undergraduate education to get a decent job. Hence, our definition of basic education should be extended to include undergraduate education. If governments can’t fund it for everyone at the moment, it should at least consider significantly reducing the burden of top few and for others in varying degrees.