There is continuous tension between the forces of elitarianism and the commons. The Open Education agenda is a good example of the latter, traditional universities are the stereotypical emblem of the former.
Universities were originally built upon a model of scarcity, holding a monopoly in access to high level knowledge, in access to experts, and in value of graduates. This model has been challenged by drastic changes, most notably the widening access policies. The philosophy of establishing a knowledge society and a knowledge economy dominates the political agenda of herding as many young people through university education as possible. It not only industrialised the knowledge acquisition processes (facilitated by new technologies), but at the same time it made knowledge a competitive asset on a large scale. This introduced neo-liberal ideas to the economy of knowledge creation and transfer, thereby replacing earlier humanitarian ideals.
With HE participation rates of 75-80% and above in Western countries, the goal of mass educating people through HE can be said to having been achieved. The question is: where next? Not only does the system crack under the financial burden of its elevated costs (even though academic and administrative staff numbers were not growing at the same rate as students), it also leads to inflation of the “product” in terms of graduates and their salaries. If seen purely from the efficiency and cost effectiveness perspective, one could argue that a large part of the population is over-educated for the jobs they will be doing. Now, good education is a warrant for a peaceful, prosperous and adaptive society, but these arguments normally don’t play a part in debates about the cost effectiveness of the HE system which has become obsessed with the goal of producing workers for the job market.
All societies live with and require leaders. This cannot only be seen in indigenous populations with their council of elders and chieftains, but also there are more positions for employees than CEOs. To make leaders distinguishable from others, one needs criteria and extra values. In current Western HE, this requires longer study, among other things. Since general education and the ordinary BA graduation puts you in line with millions of other achievers, further study (Master or PhD) or quality work experience can form one of the visible distinctions.
The question is what type of elite do we want? In modern university systems, openness has been used as the promoter of inclusive egalitarian education. Now, with the aid of (affordable) technology people can study from anywhere, access knowledge objects, OERs, data, publications, MOOCs and so forth. The real savings in this, however, go to governments as these welcome initiatives provide them with a convenient excuse not to invest in the affordability of the established system. So, after pushing the cost down the food chain to the lowest level, i.e. the student, the learning arrangement now too is outsourced to them. What is sold as “open” and “free” is in fact “do it yourself – we don’t care”! Within the system, at the same time, a new “Walled Garden” is re-established for the elite few who are able to afford paying expensive fees for support services, live experts, and the “campus club” experience. Thus, HEIs return to being the elitist training ground they always were, but instead of an elite formed by intellectual merits it may purely be based on wealth.