Pursuing accountability through privatisation of higher education

By Hasini Lecamwasam

Massive changes are sweeping through the higher education sector in the midst of political and economic chaos. As Naomi Klein’s ‘Disaster Capitalism’ thesis cautions us, hasty changes pushed through during times of great uncertainty and desperation tend to have devious intentions. These times do not afford the leisure of circumstance to carefully deliberate the implications of the proposed changes. We need to grasp the urgency of the situation and respond collectively before irreversible harm is inflicted upon our system of free public education.

The most recent of these reforms came in the form of a report issued by a Parliamentary Select Committee recently appointed to “make suitable recommendations for the expansion of higher education opportunities in Sri Lanka”. While the purported intent of the report is not objectionable, the proposed reforms are framed by a narrative of accountability of the state university system towards the public that funds it. Of course, this is not entirely nonsensical, and one could argue that more accountability is what we need. However, before rushing to implement new policies and programmes to this end, one has to critically examine how the term ‘accountability’ is understood and deployed in the report, in ways that undermine Free Education, primarily through the promotion of privatisation.

Privatisation of higher education

The key thrust of the report is to expand access to higher education inside the country, both as a means of stemming the outflow of foreign exchange and purportedly in the name of fairness. As a solution, the reforms propose to “improve access to financing and to manage the higher education system with the participation of both public and private providers”. One key way in which ‘fairness’ is to be achieved seems to be by way of making credit facilities accessible to students, irrespective of the income bracket.

Many academics at state universities are now seen taking a ‘tolerance approach’ to private universities, believing they are harmless and, in fact, expand opportunities for higher education. I do not believe it escapes their attention that once private interests are introduced, public interests automatically take a backseat. As decades of transformation within state universities should already tell us, the performance-based remuneration system in fee levying postgraduate courses, diplomas, and certificates we currently offer, pushes lecturers to prioritise their commitment to those courses over free ones. Given this reality, it is likely that private universities will draw much of the current human resource of state universities, probably on contract basis given profit imperatives.

Privatisation of education (particularly higher education to which access is currently mediated by a restrictive merit criterion due to resource constraints) is problematic on several other counts as well: first and most obviously, it requires people to pay for something they ought to have by right, in the process crystalising and intensifying wealth-based inequalities; second, it transforms our mind set from citizen to consumer, the latter of whom has to make do with the quality of service that comes with their paying capacity, rendering any conversation of equality (and dignity) irrelevant; third and more specific to education, it transforms its purpose from understanding the world and working to changing it for better in the service of humanity, to a mere tool of securing employment. Once its ethos has been transformed thus, education becomes a business, jettisoning its socio-political commitments. In the current sense of urgency engendered by the economic crisis, the government is hastening these reforms in the name of economic prudence, particularly with the worries associated with forex outflows. It is this context of financial deprivation that frames the report’s discussion on accountability.

Accountability in higher education

The proposals outlined in the report do not address the problems it highlights. For instance, it then makes a leap (mid-paragraph, while talking about the forex leakage due to educational reasons) to the research output of state universities. Here, it makes hazy reference to the number of working hours of senior professors at Sri Lankan state universities, as opposed to those in the UK, without adequate explanation as to how those figures were arrived at, nor their sources. The report’s attempt is to justify its key recommendation of introducing private higher education institutions (HEI) on grounds that state universities are not doing anything particularly useful for the public who pays their bills, even by way of their research output, with no analysis of the reasons for this, in particular, the lack of public investment in research.

The dominant understanding of accountability in this thinking is an administrative, contractual notion that seeks to ensure that university staff abide by their job contract and efficiently deliver services that they were hired to deliver. To this end, they are to demonstrate among other things that they teach the required number of courses over the required number of hours, conduct research that aligns with national development goals, and align their degree programmes with market demands to ensure employability for their graduates. This entire process is known by the term ‘Quality Assurance’, whose quantitative establishment (despite the name) of ‘work being done’ is then taken as an indication of public money being spent in a way that is useful to society.

One should not have any issue with such administrative accountability as it is a useful instrument of ensuring the functionality of institutes of higher education. The question, however, is whether establishing these processes alone is adequate to ensure an accountable education system. This is where the question of ‘accountability to whom?’ becomes relevant. Is it to the public tax payers as the report says, or is it to a market that would take access to education further away from those who cannot afford to pay for it? As we well know, private entities are about profit, which explains their ‘accountability’ to market demands. The hands-off approach hinted at in the report is an indication of just what kind of free reign the state envisions allowing for the proposed private HEI’s pursuing of profit. Clearly, this entails neither social nor political accountability particularly to the younger generation who will have to negotiate their lives in an unforgivingly privatised system.

The proposed reforms (as well as some of the measures presently taken as part of Quality Assurance), then, ensure accountability to the free market rather than the true objectives of free education which I see as “coming into a knowing of the world around us [as] social mobility and as an awareness of one’s place in the country, society and the world”, borrowing from Sumathy Sivamohan in the inaugural article of this column. Free education’s emancipatory vision is altogether jettisoned, and replaced with a progressive-sounding narrative of ‘expanding access to education’ by offering alternative ways of accessing (both state and private) universities through fee levying courses. The possibility of offering greater access through better resourcing the free education system is rarely discussed because there is no money. Where the money has gone is discussed even less. Any conversation around accountability, particularly its social and political variants, will only be meaningful if the question of resources is addressed.