Abolish private education?

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019 | | Blog

To truly counter arguments about abolishing it, private sector education must rethink its socioeconomic roles in the new national context, creating robust models of faculty development
The private sector in Nepal’s education has always been controversial, including in national policy discourse. A currently hot-button topic is whether it should even exist or if it should be gradually abolished.

In response, instead of focusing on what to do about problems undergirding the “attack” on its existence, its leaders tend to go on counter-attack, offering no substantive social vision.

Public education is criticized as well, its sustainability questioned as often. “TU is dead,” said the title of an article some time ago in this newspaper. “Unacademic activities of academics,” said that of another one, in Nepali, mixing up facts and accusations in the essay.

The question we must ask is not whether public higher education is in crisis in terms of its research productivity (argument of the first title above). It is why the narrative of TU being a moribund institution, to whatever extent it is true, sticks in public discourse.

Similarly, the question we should ask about the private sector is not whether it plays any useful role in the society. It is why the argument about eliminating it gains traction.
Let me discuss a few fundamental issues that the private sector must confront, specifically, why it must rethink its socioeconomic role and contribution to the nation. With the context of democratization and decentralization in mind, I focus on higher education.

Beyond coaching centers

First, the private sector is criticized for essentially being fancy coaching centers, preparing students for exams, marketing “toppers” and percentages, and having little to nothing of an educational environment beyond classroom and lectures for all students. Indeed, there are not yet too many exceptions to this picture painted by critics.

Few private colleges invest in research and discovery, publication and innovation, development and patenting of new products, application of knowledge to solve social challenges, or even robust connections with professions and community.

The starting point for addressing the above problem/critique would be to envision what a “professor” will mean in five or ten years from now. Will private colleges develop systems for permanent hire (or tenure after showing intellectual productivity) and promotion on the basis of knowledge advanced, patents received, problems solved, social impact made, professional communities served, and creativity demonstrated? Or will they only develop reward and promotion based exclusively on excellence in teaching?

It is time for the private sector to build on its strengths, such as lack of politicization, regular and effective teaching/learning, committed faculty, flexible use of resources, faster adaptation to social change, and creativity and innovation. It is time for it, more importantly, to identify and pursue visionary paths forward, by developing measures of faculty excellence beyond the classroom, student success beyond the exams, and social impact beyond symbolic gestures of “corporate social responsibility.”

Need for social vision

Second, the private sector is not clear about the social mission of education. Is education, including at the tertiary levels, a private enterprise, an investment for a return, a privilege that is earned by individuals and families with comparative wealth? Or should it be more of a public cause whereby those who aspire to pursue it get the opportunity?

It would be easy to say that those who view higher education as a public mission can go to public colleges. But no education can escape the question of social value (beyond the economic), or of collective outcome (beyond individual efforts). Especially in developing nations, if left only to “free” market economy, education can quickly become a catalyst for inequality more often than for equality. So, it is not enough for the private sector to simply demonstrate the ability to market what it offers. Education is not just an economic commodity that is justified by whether it sells. It must be a public good and must be designed and advanced as such.

The private sector needs to be driven by a social vision as much as the public. In fact, societies like ours must look beyond binaries of private versus public, blurring the boundaries by encouraging private colleges to invest in scholarship for students from poorer backgrounds, minority groups, and women. Beyond government mandates and quota—which may in practice be a burden for some institutions—private colleges should invest in advancing public education and creating a symbiosis with it.

Leaders of private institutions are still mostly from public university backgrounds, and we often see among them a desire to advance education as a social cause. Private colleges are also affiliated to public institutions, helped sustain higher education during political crises, and have helped to internationalize and innovate education. They must now begin to look beyond filling the gaps in public education by pursuing their own broader public vision, with the best attention and energy they can invest.

Addressing challenges

Third, private colleges are criticized for promising and promoting study abroad, contributing to the serious national challenge of brain drain. In the attempt to pitch what sells best to society, they may have aggravated the problem and even hurt themselves.

Private colleges must retain students by improving education, by preparing them to be successful locally first. They can also attract students from other countries and create international experiences for domestic students. Exchange and collaborations between their professors and educators in other countries can also contribute toward creating richer academic environments and experiences for students.

Fourth, private colleges are criticized for focusing excessively on high marks—rather than focusing on education as a vehicle of success in professional and personal lives—and especially as high marks for their own sake, as the end and objective of education. Instead of showing their quality by investing in student success, creating rich academic environments, and preparing students for lifelong success, they have focused on just “educational excellence” defined too narrowly.

The solution to this problem is for private colleges to integrate professional development into the curriculum, especially as internal assessment increasingly makes room for this—or at least doing so as part of cocurricular support for students. Many private colleges already pay attention to experiential learning, using professional development initiatives, and providing personalized support for students completing their education. More of them must do these.

Fifth, private colleges have been rightly criticized for marketing English-only medium education “as” quality education, rather than trying to help students excel in English language “and” in education at large. They must discard this myth, indeed, this lie. They must start honoring students’ right to develop advanced communication skills in more than one language, for social and economic reasons, as well as showing basic respect to a multilingual, multicultural nation. It is time that private colleges shift their focus to multilingual competence, multicultural and global awareness, and multimodal literacy skills.

Focus on reality

Finally, many of the criticisms and challenges of private colleges boil down to whether they are interested in and capable of addressing broader social issues. Are they too focused on competition? Have they been short-sighted, focusing on profit, taking short cuts, lacking long term visions? Indeed, the focus on appearance, on whatever the market demands or accepts, whatever goes with the “flow,” seem to make private colleges do things that make little social sense. For example, in the name of discipline, they tend to enforce norms about hair and dress, treating college students like children—while the real challenges of “discipline” may lie elsewhere.

When criticisms blend with reality, and stereotypes mirror weaknesses, negative public perceptions become as much a challenge as the problems. The compounding of the dismal state of research, teaching, and academic environment with a more dismal discourse must be countered by new vision, new model of professional development, new reward system, new perspectives, new teaching/learning practices and new optimism.

The private sector (more than the public) needs to be seriously involved in research and innovation, development of new practice and resources, reflection and reporting and planning and evaluation of new initiatives. More than anything, it needs to develop meaningful models of faculty development. What do private colleges/universities want their “professor” to be like, to do, to be driven by? What does s/he receive in return for dedication to the institution, to his/her discipline and to the society?

If the private sector develops no real alternatives to today’s temporary lecturers—rushing from one college gate to another, helmet in hand, unable to find time to read or research, publish new ideas or develop new products, serve community or even mentor students beyond class—then those who would like to get rid of private education altogether will become increasingly convincing to the public.

The author is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at State University of New York in Stony Brook

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