Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Crest of Change: My Life in A Private College (Part 2)

The re-validation by the university, the event I signed off at in my last post, was a make or break event for the college. The university was rightly concerned about the lack of control mechanisms at the college, and the implications of the unfettered expansion. This gave me the opportunity to step in, primarily because the Owner needed someone who was outside the various power groups, to mediate between different groups: However, this was my opportunity to try to instill some discipline and create a small scale model. In the end, the re-validation was successful and the college was saved: This was primarily achieved through building of a new team of professionals and demonstrating to the university team that the college is serious and it has committed the resources to set things right. It was rather significant for me because it gave me a constituency in the college, a defined area of responsibility, which I did not have previously. It also allowed me to shape policy, at least at a business unit level, and try to establish operating practises which, when the opportunity arises, could be replicated at the college level.

Indeed, I won the easy battles - like getting a new set of people to support the post-graduate programmes, which ranged from a highly experienced quality assurance consultant to a very smart young design graduate to create and maintain an on-line learning portal - but the key one, to control the inflow of students in the programme, proved much harder to win. From experience, I believe that the private sector colleges too often treat courses as 'products' (a view that is now sipping into public sector) and sell them just as anyone will sell a commodity. The college I worked for was proprietary and small; but I believe similar mindsets are very common in large private equity backed entities too. The biggest problem in maintaining 'quality' in private sector higher ed is, therefore, to escape the commodity trap, in product selling which permeates to teaching and learning (as the students want the shortest path to the diploma). This would be the essence of my work in the post-graduate studies in the college, not just to change the team and how it is delivered, but to try to change the nature of the course and experience.

This indeed set me on a collision course with a number of people: First, with the COO, who wanted to get anyone into the course as he developed a side business of recruitment agency and would have earned money once the students are admitted. Then, I was at the loggerheads with the Head of Recruitment, who wanted to be the sole guard on the gate, as he had vested interests too. Then, sadly, with some of my early collaborators, such as the Programme Director, who failed to imagine beyond simple courses following university guidelines and treated innovation as extra work. And, finally, as the difficult task to changing the course played on, and the costs rose temporarily while we were saying No to some applicants, I ran into a conflict even with the Owner, who appreciated the long term nature of the project but lost hope of a market recovery which would have made such efforts worthwhile. This was primarily because the UK Border Agency was trying to close off UK private colleges (except those backed by private equity or large entities) and made it very difficult for overseas  students to come to UK. The owner, while backing the early restructuring initiatives, could not see the point of doing it because the traditional markets, the overseas students, were vanishing. This last battle is the one that I would eventually lose, but this was still two years away.

The broader point is indeed that the nature of the institution, a For-Profit one, where the students pay full cost plus a margin, changes the nature of the education proposition: Turns it into something that the students as consumers buy, and hence, have a greater say on the nature of the proposition. This is not necessarily bad - indeed, this is what is at the heart of the doctrine of student choice - but this puts an additional responsibility on the institution to educate the students about education: To build affordances in the environment to encourage the students to study and have a broader perspective, rather than finding them the shortest route to a diploma. Most tellingly, one of the persistent arguments I had to have during my time in the college is about a library. This was seen as a cost and was only assembled together at the wake of this revalidation event. Even then, it was consigned to basement, and had no full time librarian, only a receptionist attending to it during the office hours. The books available were mostly textbooks. Even the more academic minded in the team disagreed with me on the relative importance of the library, citing the lack of reading habit of the students (which was true), the limited time they spent on campus in a private college (true, again) and the relative importance of online journals and books, to which they had access through the subscription of the validating university. My ideas why a library was needed was not clear enough then: Today, with hindsight, I know the symbolic value of a library, which is to position learning at the heart of the college's proposition, rather than diploma giving. And, indeed, this is not just about having the library, but embedding it into the teaching and learning, so that the tutors encourage its usage and it was built into the timetables. We did none of those things in the college, but only managed to win the smaller battles of having a library, and upgrading it, with time, from its basement obscurity to a slightly larger and more prominent room next to the reception.

There were other, bigger battles to fight around creating affordances (environmental clues to encourages certain type of behaviour), and none bigger than one on plagiarism. The college indeed had all the tools, software to track down plagiarism, but it was still rife. My contention was that the system somewhat encouraged plagiarism, using the detection software as a tool to avoid detection. It was argued that all students should have an access to the detection software prior to the submission of coursework, so that they can 'change the text if necessary': My contention that you know you plagiarised if you did was seen as impractical and hard line. The practice of giving access to the detection software is indeed in line with standard 'good practices' of the British university system, so I didn't win the argument. But my contention that giving access to detection software in fact tells the student to plagiarise as long as they can avoid detection was right and this will soon lead to another crisis, which will define the next stage of my quick fire journey inside private college life.

After my 'win' with the revalidation, I was given the authority to manage the MBA programme of the college, which was an important but smaller programme, but not much else. I was acutely aware of problems with other programmes, and was trying to create a model in the MBA programme to persuade the Owner to change the practices. I was cautious and wanted to avoid all conflicts with the all powerful COO, who controlled most of the resources, all IT and most staff. However, I found myself thrust right into the crisis when a particular dissertation, submitted for MBA, turned out to be plagiarised: It was a clever piece of work designed to avoid detection, as the original dissertation was in Swedish and the student translated this with a translation software and fixed the language glitches. It was a few untranslated words, an oversight, which gave the game away to a particularly diligent examiner. The key problem, however, was that the student in question was a staff member himself, a blue eyed boy of the COO and the Owner, someone who was the Administrative in-charge for all programmes other than the MBA, which I started managing.

Though I wanted to avoid conflict, it would have been hypocritical for me not to act on this case when I was trying to send a message to all students that plagiarism would not be tolerated. Besides, I thought the person concerned had full knowledge of the consequences and knew what he was doing because of his position: In my judgement, he should have failed the module and be exited from the course without resubmission efforts. However, my view was only too well known and by then, my relationships with the COO and his lieutenants were too fraught for any decision taken by me to be seen as fair. Therefore, I had to step aside citing my personal views and not be part of the inquiry committee. However, this soon looked like a big Hamlet-esque mistake: The moment I let everyone know that I shall not try influence the outcome, the Owner and the COO sprung into action trying to save this student, speaking to every member of the inquiry committee, including the external examiners. It did seem, at one time, the student would be given a reprieve, as he cited, correctly, his difficult personal circumstances. I was indeed horrified, as this would have meant a resounding failure for all my clean-up attempts. However, I was greatly relieved when one of the most senior external examiners, who was a hard man and I had difficulty to get on with, adapted the zero tolerance policy I was following. With his clear view, and that of the examiner who spotted the plagiarism in the first place, no other member of the board had to take the gun in their own hands (all of them knew what's right, but some were weary of alienating the Owner of the college, who made a personal request to give the student a reprieve): The decision was to expel the student, a decision of huge impact!

Looking back, I treat this as one of the best moments of my management career. I felt sorry for the student concerned, as I was aware of his difficulties and liked him personally. However, it would have been completely hypocritical to have allowed him another opportunity, and would have sent out all sorts of wrong signals. But apart from what happened, I thought my decision to stay out of the inquiry panel while making my view known was hugely significant. First, since I had a given stance, it was only fair that I stayed out. However, it also meant the the Owner and the Principal of the college, whose views on the matter was also well known, was obliged to stay out of the inquiry. Indeed, if he was in the committee, he would have had a greater opportunity to influence the discussions and might have presented a clear 'compassionate' alternative to the hard line stance taken by the External Examiner. This was one unfortunate event which nonetheless advanced my agenda for change, and represented a victory, however minor, towards changing the environment. This was also an initiation in politics for me, and I did manage to do well. This would also eventually change my views of organisational politics: Today, I shall not consider this a dirty word, but an essential tool in complex organisations. I shall argue that the nastiness of politics resides in its goals, and sometimes in its methods, but t is perfectly plausible to be political for the sake of doing what is right.

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