Friday, July 09, 2010

Somewhere Down The Road

I am on my journey, as reported, to understand the business of private education. It is not new for me - I have already seen the downside and this is why I sometimes sound full of foreboding. However, I have also come to realize that for-profit performs an important role - that of expanding access - more important than ever in helping the rising middle class in the newly industrialised countries.


There is a bit of a paradox here. Isn't public education all about expanding access? Yes, most of the publicly funded institutions abandoned their roles or failed to do it miserably. The scarcity of resources has either led to poor quality education in public institutions or an elitism, and in most cases, both. The commonest thing in the education sector is an University which pretends to be Harvard but dish out poor quality teaching and research, and suffer from a deep 'we know best' attitude and gets pushed backwards every day.


Private education solves some of the problems. One good thing is that elitism, at least the unjust ones, is difficult to maintain in private education, especially as the regulatory hurdles are being dismantled and the field is being opened up for competition. Competition also makes education affordable. We are on the reverse gear as far as universal education is concerned, and in many places, policy makers have concluded universal access to education does not help and rather hinder the quality of education. Private education providers often fill a gap, particularly in adult and tertiary education, by creating education packages which a cross-section of the population can afford.

However, private education indeed has its share of problems. Like any business, the providers are continually seeking to maximize profits and this leads to some very questionable practices. The debate in America is currently centred around student loans and some very bad quality degrees handed out to students, sinking them in the hopelessness of unemployment doubled up by the burden of student loans. In Britain, where such practices are rare, other problems persist. The very questionable practice of British universities of charging overseas students a premium and dishing out a part of the extra fee to 'agents', individuals or businesses which help them get the students, have been taken to its extreme by some private colleges. Some agents have become, by extension, human traffickers, luring students with a promise of a post-study visa and helping them to explore the possibilities of jumping the visa and pursue illegal work instead.

The colleges are indeed party in the crime and despite multiple expose, visa colleges continue to persist in Britain. The British Home Office is apparently clueless how to deal with the problem, adopting a micro-level case by case scrutiny, which is ineffective and costly. In the absence of a systemic solution, for example, tweaking the post-study visa programme in favour of more skilled areas, or providing the good private education providers financial incentives to focus on the quality of education rather than the numbers of students imported, the private education industry as a whole has suffered and quality deteriorated. Being inside a college myself, I can see how difficult it is to live with the micro-managed immigration regime, and at the same time, compete in a marketplace dominated by questionable recruitment linkages and practices.

So, the view from the road is centering around one question - how to create access and affordability combined with quality and success. It needs some clever strategic work, but that's not all: It is also about rediscovering the core values of education in the context of a cut-throat marketplace. Education in the age of Bazaar, so to say. However, this is not about criticising the notion of private education, but to accept the realities as they are and try to find a model that works. Quality is a relative concept, and the current disregard for 'quality' in the field in favour of expanding access is endemic; however, a balance must be stuck because otherwise access to poor quality education will do more harm than good, as it is already doing in America.

That, in summary, is the state of my intellectual enquiry. It is interesting, and though I realize that I have gone through this access versus quality debate many times over in my work life, the current exposure is allowing me a fresh new look at the issues with some power to make a difference.


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