Thursday, August 11, 2016

Plastering problems: Universities, private education, and the bigger picture

Broadly speaking there are two ways of looking at education. The first is that it’s a right. The second is that it’s a commodity. The debate lies somewhere in between, with those who champion the first arguing that education is rooted in ethics, while those who champion the second arguing that it’s as purchasable as any other good or service sold in this fight-to-the-dust universe we refer to as the free market.

True, both sides have their points and they do make sense. But sustaining a dichotomy between them does little to nothing by way of unveiling the bigger picture, which is what should be resorted to when assessing realities and coming up with solutions. This week’s column is about Sri Lanka’s higher education system. More relevantly, it’s about the glaring deficiencies afflicting it and the issues of private education, student employability, and public spending.

As will be seen, while the dichotomisation of education tends to hide institutional flaws which continue to ail the system, it is there (for better or worse) that the debate really begins. Which begs the question: what does each side of this dichotomy stand for?

Higher education as a right and as a commodity

Those who root education is ethics rationalise it in terms of an unconditional right, i.e. one that must be protected at all costs. They cite Sri Lanka’s continuing commitment to free education, the fact that the most “reputed” Universities in the country are owned by the State, and the fact that at the end of the day, those who enter these Universities are virtually absorbed into the local job market (by virtue of their automatic conformity to national standards). The argument makes sense.

On the other hand, those who view education as a marketable commodity are quicker to point out that everything has a price. Therefore, there’s nothing wrong in selling it. They also point out that there’s choice involved in purchasing it, which is another way of saying that hindering a student’s willingness to spend through his higher education is an infringement of his rights. Critics would argue that it’s not a question of choice but of standards: when you buy and sell education, you are equalising students who have merit and who do not based on their ability to spend. Notwithstanding that however, the commodity argument also makes sense.

At one level, the difference between these two viewpoints amounts to the difference between equity and equality. Sri Lanka’s higher education system is based on merit, not money. Of those students admitted each year to our Universities, 40% are taken in on an all-island merit basis, 55% on a district quota basis, and 5% on an underprivileged area quota basis. As Professor Carlo Fonseka once commented, “The philosophy underlining this formula is that in the present stage of our social evolution, social equity is a more desirable goal than the level of academic achievement.”

Which isn’t to say that private education doesn’t recognise merit. It does. The difference, however, is in how merit is recognised: there are no real criteria for recognising academic achievement or the divide between privilege and its manifest absence. Some contend that this leads to a parity of status between those who can pay and those who can’t, which in itself is unethical when considering how that hides differentials between those who can achieve academically and those who cannot. True. That this means private education is inferior to public education, however, is an entirely different debate to whether the former should be scripted out of the country for the sake of the latter.

And as things stand, realities can’t be ignored. The biggest reality? Notwithstanding its theoretical commitment to equity over equality, our higher education system continues to be afflicted by a mismatch between demand and supply which, together with those institutional flaws referred to earlier, makes a mockery of the ideals it purports to stand for. These flaws shall now be looked at in turn.

Some sobering statistics

In 2012, the University of Moratuwa Teachers Association (UMTA) prepared a PowerPoint presentation on our Universities. Circulated widely on the internet, it dissected various deficiencies pertaining to higher education compared to which the then government’s pledge to create a Knowledge Hub in Sri Lanka seemed empty rhetoric. 10 such deficiencies were taken apart and tellingly labelled as “Miracles of Education”, as a snide comment on the regime’s promise of turning the country into the “Miracle of Asia.”

The points speak for themselves. The percentage of students entering Universities has remained more or less the same for the past two decades. Internationally accredited degrees are provided for at 10% of the international cost. The government spends much less on education (less than 2%) than in other countries. Students are more focused on rote learning than on developing interpersonal skills. Above everything else, however, our academics aren’t paid adequately.

This isn’t all, of course. A careful perusal of reports and data would disillusion anyone. Starting with this statistic: only about 15% of those qualified to enter Universities are actually admitted. Considering available data and the fact that the percentage tends to hover between 14 and 20, we can surmise that about 80% of those who toiled for 12 or 13 years for a series of competitive exams (which they passed well) don’t make it.

That’s just one basic statistic. There’s more. All of them amount to the same thing: there’s a gross mismatch between demand and supply, with the former exceeding the latter.

Taken by itself though, this isn’t a problem. It becomes a problem when other factors are taken into account. Like the fact that for 12 or 13 years we are taught to vomit out and not think. Or the fact that our primary and secondary education sectors are oriented towards a tuition culture that depends more on notes than actual study. Or the fact that students from outstation areas prefer soft subjects in the Arts stream over hard subjects like Science (in 2012, for instance, there were approximately 2.311 Science and 2.395 Commerce students for every Arts student from the Colombo District, while that same year both ratios were 0.583 from the Moneragala District). Or the fact that, despite their grievances with the public education sector, even academics aren’t free from blame when it comes to nepotism, wastage, and recognition (or the lack of it) of talent.

Last week I argued that the first way to salvage our schools was by increasing inputs. I also mentioned that there’s a direct link between spending and outcome when it comes to primary and secondary education.

I can’t say the same thing about our Universities. True, numbers paint a pretty picture: in 2007, for instance, the government spent about 611,939 rupees per student with regard to recurrent expenditure on higher education, a figure that rose by 47.3% in the next five years. But numbers don’t tell the whole story when it comes to this issue, and so I conclude: more spending won’t automatically translate into desired outcome. There’s more that needs to be done. Much more. Beginning with the role that private education can play.

Private education: separating myth from fact

In a context where those opting for private education largely come from the middle class, it makes sense to differentiate between qualifications targeted at jobs and qualifications targeted at academic research. The middle class has bolstered over the years and has become more consumerist.

Consequently, those who opt to send their children to private institutions do so with aim of making them the proverbial breadwinner after they graduate. This in turn increases the demand for professional qualifications. Such qualifications are utilitarian, i.e. based on immediate use after their completion. They compel two questions: what of academic qualifications and what of the procedure used to standardise private qualifications?

Question Number Two is easier to answer. Self-regulating professions like the law do not really need government intrusion. Professions regulated by the State (chief among them, medicine), on the other hand, do. The uproar over a private campus in Malabe and the finding by the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) of its gross lack of standards is a stark reminder that free markets cannot subsist without regulation. And as Professor Carlo Fonseka (president of the SLMC) has cogently argued, that no less a figure than Karl Marx never underestimated the potential of free markets doesn’t in itself immunise private institutions from national vetting procedures.

Question Number One is tougher. The middle class (as pointed out above) tends to target jobs, which in the long run means that all private qualifications prioritise that aim at the outset. Does this necessarily imply deterioration? Not really, but utility isn’t the only benchmark in a higher education system. Again, Professor Fonseka offers a rational argument: while the private sector (as it stands now) can’t be expected to fund research and academe in higher education, this in itself shouldn’t debar them from catering to the demand for professional degrees.

The flip side to this is that the State must fund research, a point which has its share of supporters and detractors. Now’s not the time to delve into that, but suffice it to say that a degree based on pure research takes years if not decades to mature, while a professional qualification reaps dividends almost immediately after its completion. It can therefore be reasonably conceded that the private sector can only (or mainly) satisfy immediate demand, i.e. for qualifications which are employment-oriented. In one sense at least, the State must step in, a problem given that it currently spends only about 0.05% of GDP on research.

Reflections on rhetoric and the future

There’s no denying the potential of the private sector. Those who rant and rave against it, their critics will tell you, are beneficiaries of a system in which demand outruns supply. Consequently, their argument that the government not only must close down private campuses but also compensate those students who were studying in them sounds illogical, if not downright silly. Brushing off rhetoric however, they do have a point.

What is that point? Equity must remain the cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s higher education system. For better or worse, those who contend against private sector involvement do so on the basis of the latter’s artificial equalisation of students who can achieve with students who can’t (based on the ability to pay). The fact is that the private sector will remain fixated on that principle whether we like it or not. The public sector, on the other hand, can’t be complacent this way. They can't be lax. They shouldn’t be.

And so we can conclude: education is education. Private education, on the other hand, is not the same as free education. There’s a whole world in between. Appreciating differences, taking them into account, and achieving compromise is the way forward. After all, if there’s a mismatch between demand and supply, alternative suppliers must not only be found, they will be found. Eventually. Until then, the writing will be on the wall.

Written for: Ceylon Today, August 11 2016