Thursday, June 28, 2012

Does For Profit Higher Education Institutions Have A Role?

There is an easy way to look at For Profit Higher Education - a huge conspiracy by global capitalists to bring down the last vestiges of the Welfare State. It is a way to make money, as a colleague and a Higher Education Researcher puts it, out of people's aspirations; he implies, but does not say, that this is achieved through selling them unattainable dreams. All profits of private education sector comes from public subsidies, a noted commentator claimed, and projected the public subsidies going to For Profit education sector in the UK as one of the biggest swindles of modern times. The furore in America, about the high default rates of student loan repayments by the students attending For Profit schools, has created a sub-genre of journalism of its own. The critical question then, does For Profit Higher Education play a socially useful role?

It may seem idealistic and mundane, but this is important: An industry (the hated word) or the sector (amen!) must have a socially useful purpose to be sustainably profitable. I do believe the For Profit schools serve a purpose, having spent more than 15 years in their midst, and having seen the good, the bad and the ugly. However, there is very little understanding in the public universities, and consequently in the research circles, about the social role of these institutions, apart from a feeling of distrust and a total failure to understand why they should exist at all (apart from being part of a conspiracy).

Here is my answer: They exist because there is a legitimate, and mostly correct, expectation among populations of various countries that higher education is the surest path to social mobility, and the public higher education institutions are, by design, incapable of meeting such aspirations. The public universities, despite their claim of benevolence, are funded by public money, of which there is never enough. So, at the core of public university model sits selectivity, of one kind or another, the shape of which is driven by the political class of the day. The attendant system that has grown around it - the league tables, the college athletics, the research culture - embed the focus on selectivity. It is justified in the name of meritocracy, which would have been perfectly acceptable if life was fair and everyone really had an equal chance. However, the inherent problem of meritocracy argument is exposed as this is most often used in Britain, a country where public schools, which only the wealthy middle class parents can afford to send their children to, dominate the public university admissions. Such a closed system is intuitively biased against social mobility: This is where For Profit schools can have a lasting social value.

Before someone jumps into an argument that how can a working class student afford For Profit school when they can't go to public universities, remember For Profit schools are often no frills and therefore, cheaper than the universities. Besides, this is why there should be a public subsidy to students who wish to attend For Profit schools, because one's life should not be decided on what one's parents really did. 

I think the fundamental argument underlying the Public versus For profit debate is reflective of the wider debate in the society about social mobility and privilege. The public universities, by design, are focused in input and on the most academically able students, in turn a tool of social reproduction of privileges; the For Profit schools are the odd challengers, servicing those who missed out, those who aspire to have a better life than their parents. All the lofty talk of critical thinking and high intellect, seen from this point of view, appears an arbitrary system of maintaining a fossilized society. Indeed, science, research and scholarship from the public universities are making the world a better place, but so far, their impact on democratization of knowledge, social mobility and change, has been quite limited.

Public universities have not failed: Social inclusion fitted their agenda only badly. Or, they may have - because the model of excellence they have pursued have created a society of 'stepford wives', white male middle aged bankers who all seem to think the same way, and who, through collectively pursuing the same logic of closed room brilliance so favoured in the universities, brought about a social and economic meltdown of the scale we are experiencing now. I am sure my claim that For Profit schools offer a panacea sounds odd; but I am arguing that one needs a higher education system with different sorts of institutions to have a society reasonably balanced and diverse.

I think the For Profit institutions will add another, further, value proposition over and above democratizing access to education: The innovation in learning, particularly involving modern technologies, will primarily happen in the For Profit space. Given the funding models, the public universities have very little incentive to experiment, and most people at these universities are mortified with the thought the technologies can be used to supplement the learning communities. Indeed, most of the research on collaborative technologies are happening in Public universities - unsurprisingly, because that's where the funding is - but because of the focus on output, student attainment, success, employability, For Profit schools are expected to invest and innovate more with the learning technologies. Besides, their diverse and non-traditional clientele is expected to push them that way as well. 

So, in summary, I believe For profit Higher Ed has a socially useful role, which is different from the roles played by the Public or Publicly supported institutions. Indeed, this is a contested area and these arguments are only the starting point. However, we must move away from a monolithic view of the higher education system, which invariably allows for complacency and closed group thinking. For Profit schools  makes the higher education system more responsive to the needs of a modern society , and in fact, bring students in who would have been otherwise excluded. The current, limited understanding of For Profit institutions in the policy making circles must therefore be challenged and improved: These institutions are there to stay and to help transform the sector as a whole.

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