Friday, March 04, 2011

4/100: Choices for For Profit Education: What's Quality?

There is a halo around 'Quality' in education, and it's mostly mystical. The business world has somewhat figured it out by now: With zero defect and six sigma, and established standards and all that, the businesses have made big strides in the last three decades. A definition - doing what it says on the tin - as well as an understanding - meeting and exceeding customer expectations - have taken hold. But while education administrators keep talking about quality, and often define it with the terms borrowed from the world of business, the concepts remain quite woolly and difficult to measure.

It is quite obvious why it is so difficult. Education is not a product as we understand it. It is a mission critical service, more like healthcare perhaps, but when we move into higher education territory, it becomes a cross between a luxury, like silicon enhancements, and a social necessity, like a fire service, at the same time. But more critically than the nature of education, the problem of defining quality comes from the problem of measurement. There are a pleathora of measures for quality of education - from hard data of student achievement to soft measures like satisfaction - but since it is hard to pin down causation for any of the factors (is there a certainty that a student becomes more employable if taught in a certain way?) and therefore, hard to see where quality comes from. Besides, any attempts of measurement is impossibly difficult, with social, legal and ethical issues around it: One can't use students as a 'control group' or subject them to experimental interventions.

In the absence of any scientific basis, many quasi-scientific measures have become popular. University rankings are wildly popular, and most students pour over a dozen or so ranking before they decide which university their children should go to. However, rankings are quite an imperfect measure, not just for the reasons of measurement. Most rankings claim to be objective and comprehensive, and as Malcolm Gladwell will contend, it is impossible to be both. [See here]

Besides, there is always one thing all Higher Education quality talk try to hide: That a college is as good as the students it admits. The quality in higher education is really about selectivity in student admission. This was understood well by Charles Eliot, when he described Harvard as the place where the smartest people come together and leave their intelligence behind. But, this is a sort of a 'old boy's club' view of education, and may not have much relevance to For Profit sector as they are all about extending access. And, indeed, the transformational role of modern higher education will only be played out when a wide cross section of the society can participate, and an intake-neutral measure of quality, which penalises institutions which attempt to widen participation, is counter-productive.

Consider this: As machines take over most manual tasks that we had to do, and we are left to do cognitively challenging tasks, Higher Education of some form is needed for a wider section of the society. The public funding of Higher Education institutions happen because this is meant to extend access and widen participation. Why then, most college rankings take selectivity of admission as a factor: More selective you are, you get more points? Surely, in business, if you have to measure quality of an operation, you would offset input quality against the output quality and then rank the efficacy of the procedure. In education, however, the input quality isn't offset, but seen as an enhancement factor of process quality. Surely, there is something wrong here.

It is easy to say what's wrong: We have still not moved beyond the elitism that underpinned education through the ages. Education was never for everyone, particularly Higher Education. Now, when the needs are enormous and middle classes are taking over the world, the divide still exists and we want to cling onto it. So, who we admit to - selectivity - lives on, and in popular mind, this is the biggest indicator of educational quality.

As I argued, it should not be so. The perception of quality, its parameters, should change now. For me, the quality of an education is how much difference is made through the educational intervention. My father spent his life teaching in an inner city community college, and always took pride on making 'real' difference: His students included a few drug dealers and small time thugs, who would have got their first exposure to poetry in the classes he conducted. And, this difference must not be measured only in terms of employability: Because education is about building a 'whole person' and not about fitting people into some job which can feed them.

Is this difference measurable? This depends on how you want to measure. Benchmarking is a good way to go, but finding something to benchmark against becomes difficult. But I shall think if Gross National Happiness becomes measurable, it should not be so difficult to measure real differences that an education makes in a person's life.

This can be left to statisticians, perhaps. Or, can it be?

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