Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Educating For Wisdom

Steven Schwartz, the VC of Macquarie University, Sydney, wrote a well-argued piece in Times Higher Education, on the need to 'educate' students rather than just train (read his article here). He is clearly right. As the universities abandon their responsibility to educate, the world has become a more dangerous place, full of engineers, doctors, lawyers, managers and statesmen who lack moral judgement of any kind. Besides, this failure, at the same time when an university degree is absolutely essential to get anywhere in life, subverts our ability to make rational choices: What a waste of time and energy it is to spend so many years collectively studying something that gives a formula which is already outdated and does not prepare us for any change in circumstances?

The reason I think Professor Schwartz is right on the money is partly because the lessons I have learned dealing with universities over last few years. My impression is that for most universities, quality control is a tick-box exercise and student experience is a wooly name for all that can't be, and shouldn't be, defined. And, besides, I have been complaining about the employability bias for some time: Higher Education, if it is any higher than training, must provide its participants with a perspective, a bird's eye view of the world around them, not just how to walk the road. Instead, most university education today is about finishing the coursework and write a few pre-determined answers, and getting a job somehow. I am not surprised that a recent survey found that the graduate expectations about salaries, and the salaries they end up getting, are widely divergent: They ought to be.

In fact, the employability issue has subverted the agenda for higher education in a lot of ways. I love quoting Dr Jason Davies of UCL, a classicist who taught me Higher Education policy, who keeps saying that abolition of polytechnics in Britain was actually the abolition of universities. The more I see this identity crisis of Higher Education, the more I know he is absolutely right.

Interestingly, while I think this bias needs to be corrected, I am also a believer of For Profit Higher Education (that's what I do for a living). I am very conscious that For-Profit HE is based on the concept of 'pay-off', how soon the students could get back the money spent, and this is closely linked to employability. In real life, I also know that no student would ever want to buy a general education curricula, and all For-Profit colleges may actually promote 'Placement Support' as a key part of their proposition. But I still believe that For Profit sector has a better chance of tackling the 'education deficit' than the public sector, and here is why.

First, because student experience isn't a theoretical, nice-to-have concept in For Profit: It should be everything for serious institutions. Education is not about choice, as Paul Krugman argued a few weeks ago on the New York Times: It is the job of the educator to tell the students what they should be asking for. So, being a passive player in the education process and just providing the service isn't enough to create a student experience, and many For Profit colleges, as they compete with the state sector, are aware about this. Because of their challenger status, they would need to make the process of education, not just its end, worthwhile: In fact, enriching the education itself is their only chance of achieving a successful end.

Second, because Quality isn't a tickbox exercise but a competitive weapon for the For Profit colleges. I am also aware that many institutions fall short, but this is mostly because the sector is controlled by bureaucrats who take a limited view of the quality. This is exactly why so much of regulation has actually resulted in such poor quality of education and graduates it produces. Most of my efforts to transform the business programmes we offer meet with resistance from the accrediting universities, and the overarching message is - don't try to do more than what's needed. Even if what's prescribed does not meet the learning goals.. be safe, don't try anything new. This will not happen in a truly competitive market for higher education. And, I am not just a free-market champion here: We have the example of schools (though this is a slightly different market) where, with less regulation, private provision has proved to be quite successful in raising quality.

I do think professional private sector providers can go beyond immediate employability and introduce elements that enable judgement into education again. I believe that we haven't seen true extent of what private education can do yet: The industry is only just picking up and are still dominated by ex-tuition providers, people who came from training background and were not particularly keen on innovation. But the retreat of the public sector is now making the market bigger and attractive to new players. So, all set for the next wave - this time, perhaps the big publishers and web content producers would bite the bait. This will mean a slightly different bias, like content as education kind of bias, which is different from the current problem of training as education. But, finally, I shall guess, a pure education industry would emerge, on the backs of entrepreneurs who would look at the industry as their patch and will enter into this without the baggage of another industry, just as software did in the late Seventies. Education is the killer app for the next fifty years, and such interventions are imminent. That will be, I am hopeful, Higher Education's tipping point, when the game will change and existing public provisions will look utterly out of depth, not just because the new, professional education companies will offer better employability, but better education.

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