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The Many Faces of Privatisation and Its Impact on Education

by Ravinath Wijesekara

By Harini Amarasuriya

When the Kotelawela National Defence University Bill came up for discussion to the Ministerial Consultative Committee on Defence in Parliament, I submitted my observations to the Committee.

 Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Gen Kamal Gunaratne, in his detailed response to my observations makes several interesting points about the decision to establish a feelevying treasury funded parallel university system, revealing the thinking behind the relationship between the State and education and also about the privatisation of education. 

The Secretary explains that the KDU charges nominal fees so that ‘courses are not conducted at a loss and the services are maintained at optimal quality and standards’ and that it was emphasised by the Ministry of Finance that KDU should conduct its affairs ‘sustainably’ and ‘without a burden to the Treasury’. 

He also goes on to say that KDU has succeeded in retaining ‘valuable foreign exchange within the country’ by providing an alternative to students who would have otherwise gone abroad and also generates foreign exchange by admitting foreign students. 

This explanation reflects a common sentiment among policymakers today: the idea that public funding of education is a ‘burden’ and that all public spending must make economic sense – i.e. have a return of investment in purely financial terms. The idea that there can be areas of life and responsibilities of the State that go beyond simplistic economic calculations of growth, profit and returns seems remote.

 This logic applied to education, has meant that education is viewed primarily, if not only, as an investment towards individual social mobility without any public value. It is then argued that not only is State withdrawal from education considered sensible, the right to education is viewed narrowly in terms of expanding choices – including the choice to pay for education. 

A contrasting perspective on education can be seen when we consider the report on education by the Commission chaired by Mr. C.W.W. Kannangara that was presented to the State Assembly in 1943, known popularly as the ‘free education policy’. The authors of this report take the position that State responsibility for education is essential because a democratic nation, a nation gearing towards progress and development, requires a citizenry that is capable of fulfilling their roles and responsibilities in this journey.

 So, just as much as education is about fulfilling individual potential and public funded education is about ensuring that socioeconomic position does not determine access to quality education, there is a larger expectation – that of education as essential for social transformation, for progress and for advancing civilisation. 

There is a social and collective value placed on education – therefore, it is a public good and must be publicly financed so that it can rise above narrow individual or sectarian interests. It is unfortunate that today, the debate on privatisation of education has been reduced simply to the question of who funds education and about the freedom to choose. 

Privatisation of education can take many forms: State withdrawal from education, and the growth of not-forprofit and for profit education is certainly one aspect of it. But the corporatisation of education and education being considered a commodity like any other commodity are also aspects of privatisation that unfortunately do not get sufficient attention. 

This less discussed aspect of privatisation is perhaps what has had the greatest impact on what we understand by education as well as what we understand by the quality of education. When education becomes a commodity, it is stripped of its social and collective value. 

It is then simply an individual investment in personal growth. Not only is it then perfectly reasonable that like any other commodity, you should pay for it – but also that you should be allowed to choose, based on your expectations and also your capacity to pay for it. 

A certain minimum level of education must be guaranteed, but anything over and above is based on individual capacity and a personal responsibility. For instance, today, parents are expected to be much more involved in a child’s education than was expected of parents a generation before. 

A child’s failures in education are often attributed to insufficient parental involvement or a problem with the child’s home. This attribution of personal failure diverts attention from systemic weaknesses that contribute to poor educational outcomes. This also changes the relationship between teacher and student. 

Within our current understanding of education, the teacher is a facilitator, mediator in a person’s education. A teacher is expected to be technically competent and deliver certain educational outcomes. There is less recognition or space for the teacher as an individual, bringing in his or her own interpretation, life experiences and even eccentricities into the teaching-learning environment. The teacher becomes less of a craftsperson, someone who inspires, but more of a professionally competent mediator of knowledge. 

There is less attention given to the teaching-learning experiences as relational, as collaborative and experiential. This shift can also be seen in the new managerialism that has entered education – the more prescriptive syllabi, and the more paperwork expected from teachers to demonstrate their technical and professional competence, reinforcing this idea of education as more transactional rather than collaborative and exploratory. We can also see this in the current enthusiasm for ‘online’ education. 

Even if we forget the infrastructure difficulties that have made ‘online’ education inaccessible for many, the idea that the teaching learning experience can be simply transferred overnight on to an online platform reflects a distressing lack of understanding of the importance of the social context of education. This new management culture, also described as ‘audit culture’ has drastically influenced university life.

 There is increased surveillance of both academics and students, casualisation of academic labour – as the idea of a longterm commitment to an institution, discipline or set of ideas becomes less and less fashionable – and academic responsibility becomes much more bureaucratic. 

The idea of introducing time sheets, or finger printing to monitor academics would have been unthinkable some years ago and would have been met by fury and outrage, yet, today, it has become something that academics have had to negotiate with difficulty. 

A university lecturer who publishes extensively in peer reviewed journals, even if few people read them or are even able to access them, is far more valued than a lecturer who spends a life time perfecting one area of study, resulting in far fewer publications – even if those publications have significant impact on teaching, learning and public discourse. All of this stems from the idea that education is no different to any other commodity and can be managed like any other commodity. Students are clients who need to be satisfied or whose needs are met. 

If they pay for it, then they wield much greater influence than if they do not. Since when you pay for something, time is of the essence – any disruption to reaching the final goal of education – a certificate – is unthinkable. 

So students who engage in politics, in activism, or who simply find lectures less interesting than other methods of learning, are frowned upon. Academic success is defined by google scholar rankings and points, rather than actual impact or influence on the lives and ideas of people.

 It is unfortunate that current public debates on privatisation of education are reduced to the question of who finances education. The much more contentious issues are what privatisation means to how we understand education and what we expect from education – not just as individuals but as a society. 

It is also unfortunate, that many of these aspects of privatising education – the audit culture, the corporatisation of education institutions, the de-valuing of the sociality of the teaching-learning experience – are taken as self-evident, inevitable and necessary for the ‘modernisation’ of education. 

What we require today is a much less partisan but rigorous debate on the meaning and value of education and its value as a public good, and not simply as a tool for individual advancement, important as that may be. Ironically, if we pay attention to the former, it is perhaps far more likely that we might find it easier to produce the conditions necessary for the latter


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