Saturday, January 21, 2012

Would Private Universities save the world?

In a recent article enlisted in Harvard Business Review's Audacious Ideas, Karan Khemka and Parag Khanna passionately makes the case for private investment in Higher Education and argues that expansion of the For Profit universities will bring growth back by being the best way 'to build a skilled labour force, create more jobs, broaden the consumer base, and ultimately sustain economic growth'. Apparently aimed at investors, they also list out why Higher Education could be good business: Its negative working capital requirements (because students pay upfront), steady and predictable revenue (because most students should stay full duration of the programme), High barriers to entry (regulation, land and capital), prices that rise faster than inflation, and more demand than supply, all the traits that are in evidence abundantly in an economy like India.

Apparently grounded in the market realities of a fast growing economy like India, all of these make sense. College is, despite soaring debts and reduction of public funding, seen as a sure ticket to middle class life, and most people want to pursue it now. With Gross Enrollment Ratio at 13% to 15%, Indian Higher Education is clearly ripe for a huge expansion in capacity. Admittedly, India is still one major country where public investment is expanding in education, but, as many observers point out, this is unsustainable and would soon come to an end. Besides, the tone of next generation Higher Education experiments worldwide has now been irreversibly set in Britain, with the most abrupt 'cultural revolution' in Higher Education than ever has been, with a near total withdrawal of public support to the HE sector almost overnight. The demand-led transformation of Higher Education in emerging economies, and the supply-side shocks administered in Britain, have already altered the dynamics of the sector: Private For-Profit Higher Education is all set to take over the world, and this 'audacious idea' may be only stating the obvious.

But, in a sense, the audacity of the proposed idea lay elsewhere. The authors suggest that the emerging economies need a different educational model, and For Profit universities are better suited to provide such a model. The central idea is that the emerging economies need none of the liberal arts fluff that great Western universities were based on, and the emerging market schools should focus on economically relevant areas of curriculum, technology and business, and produce skilled graduates that can power the economy. 

This is not new, but a rather discredited idea. There is a limit to how many Engineering graduates one can produce, before the economy runs out of creative capacity to find them meaningful jobs. The liberal arts and the humanities are also crucial in maintaining a democratic society - narrow technocratic societies have already proved to be dangerously dictatorial in history. The only way to rationalize the 'new model of Higher Education' propounded here is to accept a model of dependent development in perpetuity, where the creative capacity and leadership would be supplied by the Western economies and the emerging economies will need to supply the hands that do the work. 

This is, in my opinion, the central, implicit, audacity of the idea. The problem is that this can't be undone. The idea of For-Profit university stands on quick return for its graduates, something that can be achieved, or hoped to be achieved, through skill-based curriculum than liberal arts, which has a more subtle pay-off. In short, one can't possibly make profit out of a For-Profit doing something like liberal arts. But to deny that it is even needed is indeed audacious. 

This is also why For-Profit, while they play an important role in Higher Education, may not save the world.

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