Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Understanding the logic behind the privatization of higher education

The Island, August 30, 2011, 6:48 pm, by Dileepa Witharana
Open University of Sri Lanka

During the last few weeks of their trade union action we saw a lively discussion on matters related to higher education among university teachers. While the main issue that attracted attention was the meagre salaries of university lecturers, attention was paid to inadequate funds allocated to the state university system, behaviour of the authorities responsible for the administration of higher education, arbitrary ‘leadership training’ programmes for prospective university entrants at military camps, establishment of branches of foreign universities, breakdown of the autonomy of universities and so on.

Less attention was however paid to the privatisation of education. The many challenges faced by the higher education sector mentioned earlier, are often regarded ‘stand-alone’ problems. However, when considered as part of privatisation programme, the connection between these issues becomes clearer. A meaningful engagement with the issue of privatisation of higher education requires understanding who drives this process and the different steps towards that goal.

Who drives the process of privatisation of higher education?

Privatisation of higher education is not a pet project of Minister of Higher Education, S. B. Dissanayaka contrary to popular belief. It is also not a project defined on the basis of guidelines outlined by Sirimal Aberatne in his policy paper, Free Education versus Freedom of Education. It is not even a project limited to and implemented in Sri Lanka. It is a global project implemented on similar guidelines in all regions of North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. The origins of these guidelines can be seen in policy papers of International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and in the conditionalities and policy advice given to governments by IFIs. The origin of this project could be traced back to the early history of higher education but it was during the 1980s that privatisation got a major boost. Minister Dissanayake and local authors ‘formulating’ policy on higher education reforms are merely lesser members of a cast in a grand drama, the script of which has been written elsewhere.

Some essential facts

The 1980s marked a serious change in global affairs. The social democratic model that had prevailed from 1950s to the early 1980s was replaced by the model of economic globalization. Under the social democratic model the state was considered supreme and it was the unit on which global governance systems were based. The State was regarded the primary institution responsible for looking after the overall interests of the public. In contrast, economic globalization suggests a world without borders and has introduced a single global market with a universal set of rules. The authority of the State was taken over by the private sector multinational/transnational corporations. The role of the State as a provider of social security was converted into providing security and stability for the corporate sector.

At the ideological level the primacy of the individual took precedence over the interests of the collective and governance was handed over to the market. Economic freedom became the fundamental guideline on which social order was maintained and even political systems were based. Conventional analyses of this economic model show that the State has been weakened by this process. However, what we see is rather a redefining of the State, where not only is it facilitating corporate interests but invades the lives of citizens in new ways. The relationship among the State and IFIs and other global institutions are also redefined sometimes blurring the distinction between the state and other actors.

The change introduced by economic globalization was unprecedented. One of the main characteristics of economic globalization is the expansion of the market to every corner of the world, to areas people in the past never imagined possible and to spheres people considered sacred. Virtually everything is now up for sale from health care to culture, tradition, heritage, micro-biological processes, genes, gene codes, seeds and natural resources including air and water and, of course, higher education. The ultimate objective of economic globalization is to expand possibilities for markets to gain entry to every corner of the globe for the purpose of maximising profits.

This economic globalisation model, however, faced a serious setback during the last decade as a result of the global food, environment, energy and financial crises. Attempts at reforms in sectors that could have generated higher levels of profits such as water were defeated by massive public protests. The economic perspective with a profit making drive is increasingly seen as too narrow to address complex multi-dimensional global problems. The recent global dialogue on the inability of the market to address global problems, however, happened mostly in the developed world while countries in the developing world seem to follow the same prescriptions that were offered to them during 1980-2000 without having a proper dialogue at the national level on their effectiveness, sustainability or appropriateness.

The grand project of privatisation

Transforming essential services such as education and health, life forms such as parts of animal and plants and natural resources vital for human survival such as air and water into tradable commodities or services in the market is a process consisting of several steps. Conceptually, the process consists of work in two areas; ground work done at the in-country level and preparation of international mechanisms. Sectoral reforms are introduced in countries (e .g. land, education, power, etc) to remove the ‘sacred’ tags on such services and resources and to re-introduce them as marketable commodities and services. International free trade tools and mechanisms are strengthened to redefine the role played by states in erecting barriers which block the free flow of global capital into countries.

Sector Reforms: These were a global trend in the 1980s and 1990s and enforced particularly on the governments in the developing world by International Financial Institutions. Sector reforms introduced the necessary policy environment and legal structures for the private sector to get involved in what had hitherto been treated as public services and goods. An interesting characteristic of sector reforms is the argument that reforms address a decisive problem in each sector. While energy sector reforms were proposed to address the ‘debt’ of state-run energy utilities, water sector reforms were aimed at addressing a serious water scarcity the world will face in the near future. Higher education reforms have a different logic to suit different contexts. Raising the quality of education through competition is one such argument. The other, ostensibly progressive argument is about expanding access to those who qualify for higher education but are denied access due to limited places in state funded universities. Whatever the critical issue that is identified in a sector, the common prescription that is offered becomes privatisation. This usually results in treating sectors in isolation by removing them from the functional role they play in the overall process of development. It is then proposed that each sector should recover costs by generating its own funds. The role played by the State is supposedly limited by replacing the state with ‘independent’ regulators. Finally, space is created for profit-making by promoting private sector participation.

International Free Trade Regimes: With the formation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995, free trade replaced development, democracy and environment as the fundamental guideline in macro level global decision-making. Multilateral rules imposed by WTO trade agreements on goods, services, investments and intellectual property rights made maintenance of a range of laws and regulations ‘barriers to trade’ and ‘WTO-illegal’ irrespective of whether those laws and regulations were introduced by a country to protect non-trade development interests. Development of under-developed countries, establishment of democracy and protection of environment were supposed to be achieved within a framework governed by the principles of free trade.

Within the context of privatisation of higher education in Sri Lanka attention should be paid to higher education reforms as well as to the international free trade mechanism for services, General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and other bilateral trade mechanisms that includes services (e. g. India Sri Lanka Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement – CEPA).

Stages of higher education privatisation

The literature on higher education reforms identifies three steps of privatisation in general: privatisation of cost sharing; privatisation of functions and establishment of private universities. The privatisation process however, is more complex and involves different actors and consists of many steps as described below.

1. Privatisation of cost sharing: Universities are encouraged to generate their own funds in parallel to the reduction of State funding provided to them and financial assistance to students by the state.

2. Gradual change of curricula to suit market requirements: Through the introduction of the perception that graduates are unemployable, a logic has been created for gradually phasing out many programmes reshaping the classical role played by the university to merely churning out workers for a narrowly defined job market.

3. Establishment of necessary legal frameworks and operational infrastructure: Acts allowing the entry of private universities and foreign universities are introduced. The role of the UGC and university councils are also changed accordingly.

4. Privatisation of different functions: Functions such as vending, food supply, laundry, travel, bookstores, entertainment, security and cleaning are outsourced.

5. Introduction of private universities: This includes the recognition of existing colleges as private universities and the introduction of new local and foreign private universities.

6. Offering higher education as a tradable service in international trade: This means the opening up of the higher education sector under GATS and other trade agreements such as India Sri Lanka CEPA. This results in the Sri Lankan government significantly losing control over higher education and the right to improve the state university sector.

Where do we stand in privatisation of higher education?

The privatisation process in Sri Lanka commenced sometime back and we have progressed in all 6 directions identified above. Funds allocated for universities are decreasing. Universities conduct a number of fee levying programmes and have created official mechanisms to conduct consultancies for a fee. Loans provided by ADB and the World Bank under the guise of improving the quality of education have paved the way for injecting market logic into the university curricula. Foreign universities are being invited to establish branches here. Some of the private higher education colleges have been upgraded to universities. Additional space has already been created at the UGC to accommodate private universities. Some of the functions of universities are also being outsourced. Sri Lanka is a member of the World Trade Organisation and offering higher education under GATS is a matter of a decision by the government as it is the case with India Sri Lanka CEPA, which may be signed soon.

What is important to note here is that with all these efforts the free higher education mechanism has survived to a greater extent. The recent FUTA trade union action generated a healthy discussion among academics on wide ranging issues from free education, academic freedom, the role of universities and university autonomy. The current accelerated privatisation drive that includes the introduction of university privatisation bill, however, will be critical in the process of privatisation of higher education and also in terms of the survival of free education.

Problems caused by privatisation of higher education

The purpose of this article is to represent privatisation of higher education as part of an outdated global trend that dominated the world during the past two decades from 1980 to 2000. In this article we also discussed what privatisation means taking into consideration the bigger picture and identified it not as a point but as a process. The process of privatisation of higher education, however, generates a series of issues that need discussions at all levels from academic to national. We have restricted ourselves in this article to a discussion on the mechanism of privatisation of higher education while leaving some critical questions to be addressed later:

1. What are the social and political implications of this serious shift from public to private education? Or in other words, what are the social and political implications of the gradual death of free higher education?

2. Will the privatisation of higher education replace the minority who enter university through GCE (A/L) by another minority who are rich and can afford to pay for higher education?

3. How do we see the new role assigned to universities by market-led educational reforms in relation to the various declarations on higher education such as the Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Higher Education Institutions? Is this new role acceptable to us?

4. Is there evidence to show that privatisation improves the quality of university graduates? What is the situation in the rest of the world? What is the status in Sri Lanka? What evidence do we have to claim that the graduates of the Sri Lankan State university system has been producing at least for half a century are not capable of dealing with challenges in the modern world in comparison to those who have been produced by private universities?

5. What would be the ideal structure for Sri Lankan higher education? What would be the interim stage in the journey towards that solution?

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