An angry parent barges into the room of the director of a large private institute of higher education. She flings her son’s grade sheet on the director’s desk and wants to know why the grades are so low. The director begins by explaining the student could have worked harder, but is rudely cut short. “Did we not pay the fee? How dare you mess with the grade?“ The parent is seething, even as the director remains conciliatory . The ugly face of marketisation and commoditisation of education is on full display .
Market forces are not the answer to all human problems. But market mechanisms have crept into so much of our lives that we don’t question ethics or effects. Educational institutions are run like corporations, applying management techniques to make them profitable. In theory, being exposed to market forces would compel an enterprise to be efficient with resources, innovative, competitive and tuned to the needs of the customer. But converting students (and parents) into customers alters how education as a service is delivered, and how institutions are set up and managed.
Thousands of students pay hefty fees for a seat in a private college, only to have their dreams shattered
Markets require a definition of the product or service. Education, which should be seen as fostering creativity , innovation, leadership and critical thinking, is reduced to a commodity that ensures a job. Students enrol for a qualification, and since they want to “have“ the degree, stamp, marksheet or qualification, they narrow the definition of what is expected for the fee paid. The cost is thus reduced to the present value of the future earning potential of the degree.Mushrooming of engineering and medical colleges serve the “demand“ for this qualification from the market. In this market, whether there is a job at the end of the course is all that matters.
Second, the commodification of education leads to a proliferation of measurable standards of performance. Educational institutions use metrics such as pass percentage, placement track record, ranking in league tables and student approval ratings to compete with one an other. These measurements then drive the internal performance of teachers and administrators. The communication and marketing tactics of educational institutions also focus on these metrics, which soon become the narrowly defined standards for evaluating an institution. There are severe limits to quantifying attributes that are fundamentally qualitative.
Third, treating the parent who typically pays and the student who enrols, as “customers“ modifies the relationship from one of authority to one of defensive appeasement. Research on how this transformation impacts student-teacher relationship shows alarming trends: grades are not strict; teachers work with an eye on student ratings; examinations are simpler; curricula is not rigorous; recommendations are sugar-coated and flattering of students is unabashed.
Fourth, the market for education attracts players with profit-making motives and administrative skills, since delivering a commodity at a price is not an industry with high entry barriers.The proliferation of private educational institutions in India, where steep fees are collected to churn worthless graduates is testimony to the harmful effects of marketisation of education.
Hoards enrol into programmes paying a high fee, acquiring qualifications that do not serve much purpose. Young men and women leave villages to pursue degrees that do not get them jobs, and are unable to return to farmlands to earn as much as an unlettered labourer. Many are burdened with loans they are unable to pay. Of what use is a job that pays `15,000 a month after a 5-year course in dentistry , that costs `50 lakh to complete?
The commoditised market-oriented educational model that is so rampant is a scam, as it systematically milks customers of money and offers little in return.
But there is hope. The biggest dichotomy is the conflicting objectives of the parent and the student. The parent pays and therefore chooses course and college on behalf of the student, who may not always have enough information or resources to make an independent choice.However, the consequences of the worthless degree are borne by the students who have begun to protest. Many youngsters modify professional pursuits after their first few thankless jobs, while a courageous few venture to become entrepreneurs. Engineers take up organic farming; software professionals take up music and art–small but useful beginnings.
There is no denying the failure of the market for education. Given the amount of money made by the sharks in the name of higher education, it will be a tough breaking the back of vested interests. Before the cycle turns, we may have suffered severe damage and costs. When I walked out of the director’s office to address the seminar I was invited to, I saw the bright faces of young men and women and worried about who was fooling them–parents? teachers? or society itself ? Then one of them asked me if markets were efficient.