Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Conversations : 3

Day 3 of my hundred days was rather indifferent, partly because this is part of the teaching week and once I have spent three hours teaching, and another two travelling to and fro, most of my time is gone. But I did manage to catch up with one old colleague with whom I have done some work for U-Aspire, towards getting some conversations going in Bangalore. I wanted to tell him about the change in our plans - the fact that we may not pursue engagements the way we originally envisaged in India. For me, this was important, though slightly painful, a sort of a retreat; however, at the same time, we could talk about Indian education and various opportunities. Now that I have decided to disengage from education delivery in India, I suddenly see a number of possibilities opening up that I decided to ignore before.

Setting up a college in London, which we did explore in the past, isn't one of them though. And, this is not just because of my background and interests in Asia, but more for the environment in UK education, primarily due to the anti-immigration rhetoric of the Government as well as all major political parties. Creating a Higher Education proposition for the local students, at the time of falling demand (UK college going population will continue to fall through till 2020), is not a sound business proposition; and, besides, the key thing I am interested in getting involved into is to create an educational offering to prepare students for careers and realities created by the confluence of globalisation and technology, and it makes no sense to try to create something which is purely for the local students and then wait for the government handouts to run the institution.

The reason why it is not a good idea to try to do something which involves international students in London is primarily due to the crippling and mindless regulation put on this business activity by UK Visa and Immigrations (formerly UK Borders Agency). Admittedly, there was some abuse in the sector: The politicians rhetoric of 'widespread abuse' was grossly overplayed: When 'abuse' means, as it does in the case of student migration, economic migrants coming over in another guise, the dynamics of 'abuse' is merely a slight of labour market, rather than an 'invasion', as the phenomena of student migration was portrayed to be. There is no denying there were colleges in London who were cashing on the demand for workers in the midst of a booming British economy, but their operations were quite limited and temporal, closely tied to the economic cycles.

The largely misdirected interventions by the politicians, in a desperate attempt to please the crowd by finding a scapegoat, attempted to vilify all international students who come to UK to study. The message given out was that if you are not rich enough to spend three years of university life engaging solely into studies and social activities, and if you have to pay for you way in education by working part time, you are not welcome in Britain. This is indeed out of step with the emerging reality of global Higher Ed, which is driven by aspirations and largely attracts the middle classes in emerging countries, and more in line with the idea of higher education as seen from quaint, elitist world of ancient universities where most of Britain's ruling classes were educated.

There are three ways the immigration policies created problems for Higher Ed in Britain.

First, the failure, if there was one, was of implementation: A vast proportion of so-called 'abusers' got into Britain with false paperwork, including false certificates for English language proficiency. However, instead of looking at ways to close the loopholes, to detect and prevent such abuse, which would have needed streamlining of policy, greater coordination and investment in efficiency of the border force, the Politicians, completely out of touch with the real world, tried to create the illusion of control through a series of measures directed at penalising the demand: Measures to suspend colleges and universities, threats of deportation for the students etc. Since they were not fighting a real war but was up against the workings of the labour market, such measures only increased the price for the 'abuse' and therefore attracted more facilitators in the market. To illustrate the point I am making, if, say, it cost X amount to get a lawyer to keep playing the visa rules on one's behalf, after all the tightening, this cost may have gone up by Y%, but this also means there will be more lawyers (because the money is good) and they will, in return, encourage more students to play the system. And, while the people to play the system went up as the incentive to do so went up, the Home Office did little to shore up the implementation. In fact, if anything, the staff and resources were cut, on the assumption that increased computerisation will offset this by increasing efficiency. This has led to a complete disaster: The visa processing times have gone up, the number of errors have gone up, inconsistencies have gone up and the trust that the system works fairly and properly has gone down. I was told by a group of Nepalese students that though they are studying the same course at the same institution, Indian students in their class get more 'work entitlement' than them; they believed that this is a special treatment given out to Indian students. The fact that all international students are treated as a potential abuser, an impression directly created by the rhetoric of the politicians, has generally legitimised the sloppy response from the Home Office (they wouldn't usually answer queries on the status of the applications for six months or more, and make no service level commitments, something that appears so odd in contrast with the other, generally accountable and responsive, government functions), but this has further undermined trust and encouraged those who want to play the system.

Second, sloppy as they were, the regulations were intrusive enough to interfere in the process of learning. At one hand, the regulations prescribe how many hours one must teach, and the general norms of assessment. It has gone onto stipulating what courses one can study, what would be an acceptable entry requirement and how industry placements should be done. The problem with this kind of intrusive regulation is two fold: One. the officials are usually incompetent to judge whether these norms are being followed, as they were trained as immigration officials and not as education administrators. Two, because of the sheer implausibility of regulating down to these details, the general approach has been to create a class of 'Highly Trusted' institutions and exempt them from such intrusion. All publicly funded colleges by default was given Highly Trusted status, creating an uneven level playing field within the Higher Ed sector, and the rich and the powerful private institutions were gradually added to this list. However, the abuse has continued and even widened, and even British public universities have got caught up in the visa scandals over the last two years these rules were in place. Again, the incentives are highly skewed here in favour of abuse: The Highly Trusted scheme has only created a privileged class of institutions with the license to take advantage of the marketplace, and in fact, reduced their risk of being caught out. Again, this created greater possibilities of abuse and not less.

Finally, at the wake of all these changes, teaching international students in London colleges has become a  big challenge, as many of these students may have no intention and no motivation to learn anything at all, but would still sign up for a college course to keep their visa. To be fair to them, the UK Home Office has made a mess of the whole student visa system in the UK. The international students one finds in the London colleges (I am exempting top UK universities from the observation, but everything else is included) are often there because a lawyer has suggested this to them. They are bonafide students in the sense that they would indeed do whatever the UKVI has asked them to do - turn up for classes, stay on the course - but nothing else. The policy-makers, in their extreme but usual arrogance, indeed thought they can make a student learn by setting the parameters of learning: Indeed, there are a handful of highly motivated, capable students in every classroom, who have landed up there by sheer ignorance: In fact, it is their tragedy which makes the experience even more crushing. 

In my view, these factors together changed the private sector British Higher Ed completely, creating a 'market for lemons', where minds are focused on manipulating the immigration norms and not on any educational objectives. I shall also claim that this has corrupted the culture of public institutions, as they were handed in some 'easy meat' and they could start taking international students for granted. The combined effect of all of this, plus the hardening of social attitudes towards immigrants, does not bode well for higher education in Britain, whose current comfort with 'Brand UK' is not unlike the delusional heir who lives off family silverware. It made no sense for me to get involved in this sector at a moment like this: So, despite the moments of apparent temptation of working with one or the other institution here, I believe I am taking the right decision to explore the possibility of setting up an institution abroad.


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