Thursday, March 24, 2011

15/100: The Consequences of Muddle

I would expect a Tory government to be business friendly. But it is clear that the current British government is caught in a web of its own confusion. At one end, it talks global and wants to connect to the rapidly changing world, kick-start an enterprise society and build a competitive modern economy; on the other, it needs to fulfil its promise to take Britain back to the past, play on its islander mentality, and erect, if it could, an wall around the coastlines to keep everyone out. This is obviously spilling out to its approach to Higher Education: It is throwing the whole university sector in crisis with its harshest culling of public funding in two generations, in the hope that private sector will step in to fill the void and meet the British industry’s requirements of skills and knowledge, and then, as if to make up, it is cutting out the Private Education sector from the lucrative international education market, Britain’s third largest export industry by some count, in the hope that the universities can mop up the place left vacant by the Private providers.



There are at least two key problems with this thinking. First, the universities can’t service the markets that private providers service. They are not nimble or imaginative enough. They don’t have the understanding of the international student market the way private providers do. Most private education entrepreneurs are from ethnic minority background, and often their businesses are built around a deep cultural bond with their countries of origin. For university bureaucrats, international students look like fat pots of money. The promise of ‘university life’, which roughly translates into an undisciplined pursuit of sex and drugs, misses the point with cash-constrained, highly ambitious international students, seeking an outcome in a hurry. The private education entrepreneurs understand them: They deliver. The university administrators, who have mastered the game of seeking funding and faculty council politicking, are completely out of depth here. So, the students who wont come to British private colleges will not go to British universities; they will go to Canadian and Australian and American For Profit colleges.



The other problem with this approach is that it is anti-competitive and will promote complacence and sloth, rather than efficiency and innovation that we need in the education sector. The proposed legislation are intrusive and is an attempt to impose bureaucratic processes ahead of simple academic disciplines within an education institution. Government failed in instituting adequate oversight and will continue to do so. In fact, its efforts in accreditation was miserable so far; despite the rhetoric, the government actually forgot the mandate of the current accrediting bodies in the private sector, namely BAC, ASIC and the British Council, expired back in 2009 and was never renewed. However, when the government tried to fix the system, it did not try to fix the system by tightening the accreditation, telling the colleges to smarten up and gain a QAA accreditation in the matter of next few months. It can’t be done, because the QAA does not have the resources and will not be given the resources. Instead, the government gives a long drawn out, almost open ended, period of 18 months to all privately owned colleges to get accredited, but jumped the gun on other areas, depriving students of work rights and other facilities which they legitimately could expect. The government blamed the previous government, most conveniently, but failed to take any lessons from its muddle. It repeated it, all over again.



The implications for British Education industry is huge. Just when education is becoming world’s fastest growing industry, and the aspiring millions from India and China are looking for options, British institutions, which is nominally just below the American ones in terms of global prestige, have been put in a modern time equivalent of a cage. And the impact is not limited to education: It will have ripple effects in financial services and creative industries, the other two big export sectors of the British economy. Politically, it scores points if the British workers can make cars again, but no sensible government would aspire for a future when car manufacturing returns to Britain but the design and fashion shops, banks and brands, go to India.



The British Home Office needs to make up its mind. Fast.

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