Published on 2012/03/05

Let’s Pick Up The Pieces: Why Commercialization and Standardization are Breaking the Education System

Let’s Pick Up The Pieces: Why Commercialization and Standardization are Breaking the Education System
The for-profit education industry, and the view that students are customers to be exploited, is breaking higher education. Photo by Cuarzoliquido.

What one thing would I change in higher education right now?

Well, let me start with saying that I don’t believe very much in the value of these ‘one thing’ questions, because the world in which we live and everything in it is much too complex to see issues isolated. There is always context and changes made to one thing almost certainly cause unpredictable outcomes on an entirely different end.

However, there is one thing in higher education today which does bother me a lot and that is its commercialization. I feel that there are way too many companies out there who jumped on board of the boat when those who used to guard the boat (education authorities) made it way too easy to do so.

And now the boat is full of gold diggers. It seems about to sink from the mere weight of their loot…

“What is wrong with for profit education?’ one might ask. “Isn’t this the way the field has been saved with all those ever-rising costs?’

Well, not quite. In fact the opposite is the case. The field (if this term can be applied to something as diverse as higher education) is put at risk by the inflation of degrees and demise of quality of these degrees, which is a direct result of opening education to private business.

Sure, the classic higher education system, the old European Universities with their long tradition had (or still has) its own flaws. Inflexibility may be one of them. Still I believe that many of the values and ideas of this traditional system successfully stand for a higher quality of education.

One thing which is poison for the quality of education is the idea of students as customers. The idea that they invest in their future by means of an educational program of course is not wrong. But the way it often is communicated today leads to a consumer thinking which together with the intake competition between schools puts the students more into power and control than it is good for them. It seems like too many people actually believe what the marketing spin doctors of the education industry tell them: that they can learn and be anything, as long as they enroll—and pay.

Obviously these choices are also too often made with only a career prospect in mind—in students’ minds or in parent’s minds (and this is being supported by the schools offering these ‘foolproof’ career tracks for obvious reasons). When it comes to the choice of what to do with one’s life there are other more relevant factors than just career and supposed future financial security. For a more elaborate opinion on this than my humble rant I suggest to read Sir Ken Robinson.

The problem in this context is that a school set up for profit would never consult a potential student in a way that he or she might step back from the idea of studying at this school, because it is perhaps not the right choice for this particular student. Who in any business wants to lose a potential customer?

Another problem which is bringing the quality of education down is standardization. “How is that?” the counter-skeptic asks. “Isn’t the opposite true? Does standardization not guarantee a level of proven quality?”

Yes, but on what level? Global or even just national standardization of education leads to accepting too low standards just to make it work on that large scale. Don’t get me wrong, nothing is wrong with setting clear standards within a reasonable context, for example within one school or organization.

The problems and issues which occur through this development are multifaceted and sometimes bizarre when it comes to details. For example since the Bologna Process made Universities in Germany and other European countries align their programs in the bachelor/master system, often urging them to give up their established high quality 5 year programs. As a result, students who hold a bachelor degree from schools with much lower quality demands have to be accepted in the master programs of the more demanding schools—just because these students duly collected their credit points. Only that these credit points often mean nothing, because the accreditation system can be just as easily corrupted as any system.

Whoever thinks that schools have a right to control who they accept in their master programs is of course right (morally), but probably would be surprised to learn how many students managed to sue their way into their desired master on basis of the accreditation system. From their point of view they cannot even be blamed.

To also put this issue in context with for-profit education: the standardization makes it easy for companies in education to set up a facade of high quality just through obtaining the accreditation. Money can buy a lot as we know.

So what would I change? I don’t know really. I never agreed with the point of view that one cannot criticize unless he also suggests a solution. There is no simple solution anyway. Make profits in education illegal and send the whole lot of profiteers to jail maybe? There are some seriously rotten apples at the bottom of this basket for whom this treatment would not be too extreme—I have met some of them, or should I say I have met the worms?

Given magic power I probably would turn back time, say 20, 30 years, but keep the records and then say “OK, let’s try again, but this time let’s not screw it up” (same suggestion to the colleagues in banking, finance and real estate).

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Readers Comments

Clark Ellis 2012/03/05 at 1:08 pm

Nope. Absolutely not. If we don’t see students as customers, we’re forcing them into our small idea of what constitutes education. Students should be served by their school, not in the school’s service.

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