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Extreme Economies: What Life at the World's Margins Can Teach Us About Our Own Future by Richard Davies

Published in January 2020

What will higher education look like in 2050?

This question has been on my mind, as it was about 30 years ago that I graduated from college. Thirty years does not seem like all that long ago -- 2050 will be here soon.

One way to think about the future of anything is to search for outliers. Find those who are already living in the future, and chart a path between them and us. This is the method that Keynes used in 1930 article "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren," pointing to the wealthy of his era as “our advance guard -- those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there.”

This is the method that Richard Davies employs, to great success, in his fantastic new book Extreme Economies. Davies’s concern is the future of economic and social life, not the future of higher education, but his approach has much to teach us about where academia is headed.

Extreme Economies is divided into sections: survival, failure and future. The chapters on survival explore the economics of resilience through visits to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the Aceh region of Indonesia that suffered from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola).

Nowadays, much of our higher education questions concern resilience. We are asking ourselves how we can create more resilient institutions in the face of COVID-19 and the associated financial, educational and logistical challenges that the pandemic is causing. These chapters on resilience in Extreme Economies are relevant to higher education today, as we can learn much from refugees, tsunami survivors and prisoners.

The second section of the book on failure includes visits to Panama’s Darien Gap, the African megacity Kinshasa and Scotland’s Glasgow. These places suffer from a great many dysfunctions, from an overbearing and capricious state (Kinshasa) to elevated levels of substance abuse, unemployment and suicide (Glasgow). The chapter on Glasgow is of particular interest to us in higher education, as at one point, the city was one of the wealthiest and most culturally advanced places on earth.

In higher education, we have a hard time imagining a radical reshuffling of the status hierarchy. It seems as if the schools that are on top have always been the most selective, prestigious and wealthiest. What Glasgow teaches us is that external changes (such as foreign competition and the rise of the knowledge sector) can lead to dramatic changes in circumstances if cities (or schools) fail to anticipate and adapt.

The final section of Extreme Economies, which looks toward the future, will be of most interest to those reading this book through higher ed eyes. Davies explores three trends -- aging, technology and inequality -- through the experiences of Akita (Japan), Tallinn (Estonia) and Santiago (Chile). In 30 years (some places sooner), we will all be as old at Akita, as technologically advanced as Tallinn and as economically stratified as Santiago.

The stories of how these places became so old, techno and unequal are fascinating. Davies makes the provocative argument that the rest of the world is likely not automating fast enough to deal with the effects of aging and that societies are bound to experience runaway inequality if market forces are allowed to dominate. The section on the expansion of the for-profit university market in Chile is alone worth the price of the book. Anyone unconcerned about public disinvestment in higher education might want to visit Santiago.

What are the extremes of colleges and universities that we could visit to gain a glimpse of our futures? The usual suspects are places like ASU, SNHU and Minerva. I’m starting to think that Western Governors University might be quietly creating the future of public higher education. We’d want to check out Georgia Tech and learn about how low-cost online master's degrees at scale are going. Michigan seems to be reshaping how we think about innovation in higher education. Where else might we find some higher education extremes?

At the same time, 30 years ago, we might have visited outliers such as Hampshire and Marlboro, which might have seemed like the future. Who could have argued that the world would move to a student-centered and egalitarian system of higher education? So perhaps we should exercise some caution when looking at extremes in our efforts to glimpse our higher ed futures.

How are you going about trying to understand where higher education will be in 2050?

What are you reading?

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