Thursday, May 24, 2012

Would Independent Colleges Disrupt The British Higher Education?

It doesn't seem so at this time, when the British Government's discriminatory treatment of private sector higher education institutions driving the sector to extinction; however, from the experience of other industries, one can see that this is precisely the time when winners, and new business models, emerge.

British Higher Ed, right now, is at a crossroad, but is leading towards a blind alley. The ever more bureaucratic state is trying to shape the higher ed agenda, and spawning a generation of ever more compliant university officials disconnected from the reality of the marketplace and with heads hidden in the sands of already bankrupt politics of grants and funding. The celebrated triple helix is being torn apart, almost by design, as the state tries to disentangle itself from the crisis of confidence, the industry continues to deal with the fall-outs of global recession, and universities try harder to please their ever more demanding, and ever more stingy, masters. What we get, in effect, a higher ed system resting on laurels of e past, but completely oblivious of the opportunities, and challenges, of the future. In short, with all eyes off the ball, this is an industry ready for disruption.

There are indeed well articulated fears of the education buccaneers, the businessmen who want to invade the placid gardens of disinterested inquiry. Some of these fears are well grounded, some of the misdeeds of the robber-baron edupreneurs well known. But in a country dealing with peeping Tom journalists and expense fudging politicians, moral judgements are hard to make and always beset with doubts such as who should judge whom. One thing is clear: If education is for employability and enterprise, it will be best left to people who understand these rather than the out of touch bureaucrats and insincere politicians. Besides, whichever history was conveniently adapted to justify the all pervasive state in higher education, it was almost always a private business; interestingly indeed, the students almost never paid for their higher ed, never in full anyway, but it was private will, enterprise and innovativeness, that built the great colleges all over the world. The state-funded universities were very much a colonial innovation, and never went much beyond producing clerks for an expanding Raj. The current form of meddling education bureaucracy is only a last century invention, and indeed, one that has already, markedly, failed. Between the bureaucrats and businessmen, the latter has better track record, and more incentive, to make education work.


Then, there is India. And, China, Asia, Brazil and everywhere else, the teeming millions of young people wanting to create a better life than their parents. What would a British Academic bureaucrat, far removed in the safety of a tenured job, manicured lawns and long summer holidays, understand of that aspiration? Disinterested inquiry must meet the hunger of these individuals half way, for whom such education is not just life enhancing, but the start of a decent life itself. There are a few thousand who make it to Britain, jumping through the hurdles of the UKBA put in front of them and working through the inward looking admission systems, which indeed do not recognise any other system of education to be equivalent or comparable to Britain's. However, many millions get left out, and get labelled as 'non-genuine' students, if there is such a thing, simply because they have to support themselves by working part time while they study, or because they were not fortunate enough to go to an English medium school in their own country. This is a segment, aspirational, hard-working, at the bottom of the education pyramid, that the British universities seem not to know, and not to care, about.

However, this is exactly where Independent colleges operate. Indeed, in the past, most of them succumbed to the easy charm of making money through getting these students to UK, but not offer worthwhile education. They were not just short-changing the Home Office, but shortchanging their students as well. The better life they promised vanished with the recession, and the freedom from certain meaninglessness, which the students aspired for, were undesirably traded off for an uncertain, on the edge, experience of on-again, off-again existence of handing out newspapers on the street. Their owner-operators were the slave traders of this century. But one thing they accumulated is market knowledge and deep linkages, and the independent colleges, at least the more sincere ones among them, were closer to the people it served than those VCs who spent most time navel-gazing and wining and dining with their regional bosses.

Today's chaos, therefore, presents its own opportunity: The colleges, rightly, are being held accountable for their students' achievements, and suddenly they are back in education business. This creates a new kind if pressure, to do more and to be meaningful. Fortunately, private enterprise flourishes under exactly this kind of pressure. As the old rules are being rewritten, and recession wields its merciless whip, a reformation is under way in the sector. There are new owners and new management, but continuity in market focus and student connection, though there are new business and delivery models. Independent college sector in Britain, for long an underclass, is suddenly a hotbed of innovation, in a state akin to mid-Reformation fast approaching the thresholds of enlightenment.

In the meantime, the universities are under a different regime, operating under the very British do-not-ask, do-not-tell presumption of innocence; this is exactly the kind of lenience that sets bureaucratic institutions on the slipping slope of decline. Ivory Towers are being fortified as millions are knocking on the gate of opportunity. The VCs are indulging in their dreams of global network, but one built around the 'Ottoman sphere' and the like, configurations that no longer exist outside the history books. For them, the demand for British Education worldwide is self-fulfilling evidence of their own excellence; it is not about student aspirations and changing deliverable as any market-savvy entrepreneur will clearly see.

But this aspiration is real, the market transformation is real, the opportunity is real and the independent colleges are getting ready: Their moment in the Sun may just be around the corner.

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