Roll up, roll up . . . it's the sale of the century

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am

Economy, efficiency and effectiveness are managerial slogans that have been championed by governments around the world when reforming state-owned higher education. But is the rhetoric as positive as it suggests?

At a conference held earlier this month at the City University of Hong Kong on the reform of higher education in Asia, academics warned against the blind pursuit of privatisation of tertiary education.

Organised by the Comparative Education Policy Research Unit at CityU, the Centre for East Asian Studies at Britain's University of Bristol and the Research Institute of Higher Education of Hiroshima University, Japan, the conference was attended by academics from around the world, including Hong Kong, Korea, the US and Australia.

John Hawkins, a professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the US and Asia faced similar challenges.

'The notion of higher education as a public good is being challenged in Asia as the state withdraws from maintaining the levels of financial support it has provided in the past,' he said. Moves to privatise had not been well-received by faculties in parts of Asia and the US.

Higher education in Asia faced a host of challenges. While having to maintain their core, such as autonomy, elite status and the conviction that ideas were important, institutes had to adapt to forces of globalisation that to some entailed a loss of skills necessary for an understanding of culture, values and intellectual independence, Professor Hawkins said.

In some parts of Asia, there was a concern that universities had turned into businesses. For example, in Singapore the University of Pennsylvania Wharton Business School venture had been criticised for solely focusing on the market and making money rather than academic collaboration and intellectual exchange.

Looking at Southeast Asia, Anthony Welch, an associate professor at the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, said higher education governance in the region was characterised by the growth of the private sector and the hollowing out of public institutions by privatisation.

Public institutes were offering extension courses on the weekend which had a lower entry. 'The qualification is not always accepted and academics have less time to do research,' he said.

Referring to his study of changes in higher education in five Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia and the Philippines, Professor Welch said the expansion of private higher education provided a wider access to education.

'That's broadly a good thing,' he said, since there was a huge demand for higher education in these places where 30 per cent of the population was under the age of 15. 'But the issue is the cost and the quality,' he said.

The rapid growth of private higher education was often of low-quality institutions with poorly-qualified teachers and few resources.

'Those are the most accessible for poor people. The difficulty is to get into good quality institutions at a reasonable price, which is becoming harder as governments reduce support,' Professor Welch said.

'It's OK if you've got money because you can buy your way into good quality private education. It's OK if you can get a scholarship, you can go to a good quality public institution,' he said. 'But if you are clever but poor, your chance of getting into a high-quality institution is arguably lower now. It's a problem of equity.'

The discussion also focused on reforms in the mainland, where the government is withdrawing from higher education, evident from financial decentralisation and increasing reluctance to subsidise students. Yang Rui, a senior lecturer of education at Monash University, said the national government's decision to expand higher education had gone hand-in-hand with the commodification of the sector.

But the shift to a market approach to education had spawned serious problems, he said. They included lax quality control and the collection of illegal fees. In 2003, the government audited 18 institutions and found that 868 million yuan of their income came from illegal sources - 14.5 per cent of the total fees they charged.

Dr Yang said many universities had set up 'university towns' to generate extra income by running 'branch campuses', which received government funding but operated as private businesses. These institutes were plagued by financial irregularities, he said.

He said the commodification of higher education was particularly damaging to countries with a large number of poor people. In the mainland, an increase in education fees and illegal charges meant poor students had not been able to afford tertiary education, with about 80 per cent of school-age children in rural areas not having access to universities. Despite the issues, the central government remained passive, Dr Yang said. Top-down decisions were largely driven by economic considerations.

Joshua Mok Ka-ho, chair of East Asian studies at the University of Bristol, said the diversification of funding sources and education provision to market forces and civil society in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand had not weakened the capacity of the states. Governments had acquired the ability to 'steer from a distance', he said, by using a carrot-and-stick approach to persuade universities to oblige by policy and regulatory frameworks.

However, Professor Mok said he was concerned about the effectiveness of some Asian states in regulating a multiplying number of institutions.

Turning to Hong Kong, William Lo, a PhD student at Bristol, cited the mushrooming of sub-degree programmes provided by the private sector as evidence of the process of privatisation now gaining a foothold in higher education.

Meanwhile, public universities were keen to embrace corporatisation, he said, as they expanded business arms and commercialised research outputs. The pursuit of quality education was translated into the maximisation of 'value for money' and cost-effectiveness, he said.

Mr Lo said educational reforms along the managerial line and the growth of corporate culture might run the risk of stifling the creation of a diverse pool of ideas and values. Students might not be able to distinguish the role of a citizen from a consumer if they were immersed in a consumerist culture on campus, while academics might confuse the meaning of education and job training.

David Chan, an associate professor at the department of Asian and international studies at CityU, questioned the goal of educational reforms in Hong Kong.

Knowledge had become the capital for profit-making, he said. 'We are confusing the means and the goal.'