Education as a Business
If that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, I can do little. Over the last few years, I have noted the essential conflict between the logic of profit maximization and the longer term needs of an education operation. It is not an one-sided story: I also know of the bureaucracy and the risk-aversion that plagues the public education providers, and how that does not help the learners in a rapidly changing world. But, on the other hand, I have seen the dark sides of managing education with the objectives of return maximization, and have seen so many scandals now that I would believe that for-profit is not the be-all and end-all solution that we believe it is.
Let me talk about the good bits first. I think education as a business really makes institutions dynamic and responsive to markets. That format pushes for continuous innovation, in terms of courses, delivery technologies and in developing market relevance, so that the students get a shorter 'pay off' period for their degrees. Which is all good, if you consider education is essentially for developing skilled individuals to help fill the jobs that exist and drive the industry forward.
But, education should do more. Looking at education as merely the way to produce workers is limiting our imagination. While such a thing must happen, education should also facilitate a balanced society, with its 'useless' supply of poets, artists, photographers and novelists, and also equip everyone with more than just the employablity skills, like respect. In short, education as we know it is about facilitating human progress, not just filling the needs of the industry of the time.
One can say that the education debate is actually between these two viewpoints. But it is not an evenly balanced debate, and education for creation of possibilities is all set to lose the contest. This is because education as a provider of skilled workers have captured the public imagination, and even the governments love it. If one considers that the governments' main job is to maintain social stability, to create jobs and to allow businesses to have growing profits, which in turn ensures GDP Growth, then education as a factory for skilled workers really is the only thing that the governments should promote. This is even better, because businesses love it. It is simple to establish a pay-off equation and produce graduates. As long as the math works, there is a good business to be had.
However, this does not work. There are a number of reasons. First, this model brings the existing industrial orientation to education at the cost of new and emerging requirements. For example, psychology and behavioural economics, relatively new sciences which have gained enormous popularity in recent times in the west, are not very popular with education institutions in India: Nor they are likely to be. Indian education system has almost accepted in principle its subsidiary role to the education institutions of the West, and concentrates on producing graduates who can do programming. It does not matter what the students' personal orientation was, nor what the future job markets, 10 years down the line, may require. At this very moment, being a programmer may have the quickest pay-off in India; hence, almost all resources of education-as-business sector is geared towards that.
In fact, there is more to it than just bringing the near term orientation of business to the education provision. Giving over education to private business means the societal imbalances become deeper and more entrenched. For example, while we may acknowledge that the bankers do not deserve the multiple times the salary they earn over teachers or nurses, the education infrastructure automatically adjusts to this market reality, and creates additional incentives for banking education and disincentives for teaching - in effect, institutionalizing the imbalances.