Thursday, October 20, 2011

Who's Afraid of For Profit Universities?

The short answer: Everyone in the UK Higher Education sector at this time. Except those who have retired and are happily dreaming about a second, cushier, career than their first. 

They have reasons to be worried, indeed. The writing seems to be on the wall for a while. The last Government gently nudged the country towards this direction after they asked Lord Browne, a businessman, to determine the future of UK's Higher Education sector. One of the first acts of the current coalition government was to accept his recommendations almost entirely, and at the same time, allowing the first Private university, in the form of BPP, to get degree awarding powers after almost thirty years. The government managed to withdraw almost all of teaching funding the universities received so far, and putting their faith on 'competition' to ensure quality in the sector.

The policy directions couldn't be clearer than this. The uneasy feelings in the UK academia about Dave Willetts' frequent hobnobbing with major US and UK For-Profit Higher Education companies are no less intense than the nation's horror's with Liam Fox's all too visible friendship with Adam Werritty, who seemed to have been wheeling-dealing on behalf of some defense companies. Higher Education Executives, faced with declining international student numbers due to the anti-immigration rhetoric and clumsy policies of UK Border Agency, increasing uncertainty among the Home and EU students about poor job prospects due to recession and rising tuition fees, clear apathy from the Ministers about the sector, seem to have found their villain in the For-Profit Education, and have been calling it names. There is a clear change of attitude in the British universities about the For-Profit sector that exists today: The recent scandals that hit the University of Wales because of its association with questionable colleges in London only hardened this apathy further.

Indeed, the objections so far have been that the For Profit Education is somewhat like a sausage factory, wholly unsuitable with the British model of Education, which has the concept of a 'gifted amateur' at the heart of it. Inspired by Oxbridge, the 'British' model of Education is claimed to be about free-wheeling inquiry into the areas of study, rather than rigorous and single-minded cramming of textbooks that is often experienced in For-Profit model. The For Profit model emerged in Britain, as in many other countries, largely from the Professional Training sector, and hence, their teaching practices are heavily influenced by the practices in Accountancy and IT training. Operating on the 'value for money' paradigm, most For-Profit colleges focused on tangible deliverable, clear learning outcomes and teaching to pass the course perhaps. This, the HE sector has claimed, is responsible for current apathy of employers in hiring graduates: However, soaring graduate employment has only focused minds and increased the appeal for quick-fix training, and indeed, many traditional universities have jumped into it. With Americans around the corner now, it seems that this game is about to be changed, and all-or-nothing fight for 'models' is on the cards.

The other objection that the Universities often throw at For Profit upstarts is that they don't invest in infrastructure, such as libraries, common rooms, spaces where independent thinking can grow and prosper. Somewhat connected to the first objection, this reinforces the image of For Profit colleges as factories, churning out commoditized degrees but not a nice place to be. However, it is an interesting argument, because the universities, which built their lavish, often wasteful, facilities on the back of public funding, are being disingenuous in wanting, at one hand, to keep out the For Profit from access to public purse and on the other, complaining about their infrastructure.

However, this is a losing game and almost every VC around the country know that. All the academic community is doing at the time is to try to minimize the threat and deny the level playing field to For Profit as long as possible, but with Government's areal bombing, they have as much chance of holding on as Qaddafi had in Sirte. Whether this will turn out to be good or bad for British Higher Education will be determined with time: Despite the problems with For Profits, American and Australian Higher Ed seemed to have gained from its advent and the big public institutions in those countries thrived regardless. There is one word of caution that must be uttered in the end. However much this government tries to talk about competition, they don't really believe in it. So far, their vision of competition was more alike old boys' polo matches rather than a fiercely competitive bazaar, where only the most inventive could survive. The threat to British Higher Education does not come from competition but from the lack of it; not from the upstart colleges but from the government. There is indeed no halfway house in the policies British government has adapted: One can only hope that they can put their money where their mouth is.    

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