REGULATORY OVERKILL

TIGHT REGULATION OF EDUCATION MAY KILL THE SERVICE SECTOR POTENTIAL IN SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka is starting to tighten regulation on private education, claiming that state regulation will improve ‘standards or ‘quality’ while thousands of unemployable graduates, apparently with highquality state degrees, are becoming a net burden to society by getting government jobs. Sri Lanka’s information technology sector and software developers did not learn their craft at state universities. Most started with Australian and British Computer Society diplomas at small computer schools with no state intervention. The instructors did not have PhDs. Some were practitioners. The successful ones were good teachers who could pass on their knowledge well. The students were keen to learn, having paid hard cash. Though there was no regulation, students and parents knew how to choose the computer tutory where pass rates were high.

Now the University Grants Commission is approving degree awarding institutes. That some Sri Lankan schools can now award their own degrees without the state declaring them illegal is undoubtedly an improvement. But silly requirements set by the state can lead to perverse reactions. There is a scramble to hire PhDs. There are stories of ‘renting’ degree certificates. None of these happened before regulation, when students looked out for their own satisfaction by word of mouth, where no private school could last long unless they delivered.

WORST QUALITY

A serious ‘quality’ problem in state education is the so-called attitude of entitlement of those passing out. Like feudal lords of yore, or shoguns, they think the society owes them. When thousands of graduates of state universities are striking on the roadside with no attitude or skills to get a job and fit into the productive society, it is a joke to talk of state regulation.

Some faculties of state-controlled universities have failed the nation and the students. But there is no accountability. Society continues to pay with state jobs for unemployed graduates. It is nonsense to talk of government maintaining quality in a country like Sri Lanka where tens of thousands of lost souls have been created in the form of unemployed graduates by the state. The state does not regulate the top universities of the world. They themselves set standards or are accredited by non-state agencies. In November 2019, the US Department of Education released a new rule on accreditation agencies that is worth looking at.

Critics are saying it reduces student protection. While that may be true or not, protecting students at the expense of innovation may also not be ideal. Key takeaways from the new rule which will go into effect from July 2020 are as follows. Level the playing field by ending unfounded distinctions between accreditors based on the geographic area in which they perform their work.

IT IS NONSENSE TO TALK OF GOVERNMENT MAINTAINING QUALITY IN A COUNTRY LIKE SRI LANKA WHERE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF LOST SOULS HAVE BEEN CREATED IN THE FORM OF UNEMPLOYED GRADUATES BY THE STATE.

Create opportunities for new accreditors that give priority to student needs and outcomes rather than academic traditions that primarily benefit faculty.

Counter the inclination of faculty, professional societies, and licensing boards to rachet up the entry-level postsecondary credential required to work in certain occupations.

Enable students and institutions to leverage state-of-the-art facilities maintained by companies, unions, and trade associations – as well as the expertise of the subject matter experts these organisations employ – to improve educational quality and outcomes and reduce the cost of providing education to students in areas where equipment is expensive, and technology evolves rapidly.

Enable more institutions, including rural institutions, to provide low-cost or no-cost dual enrollment opportunities to students while still in high school.

Speed up approval of new programs and curricular changes to ensure that what students learn in school keeps pace with what employers demand in the workplace.

Empower employers to help engage more actively in program development and review.

Inform student choice by assisting students to determine which programs are most likely to prepare them to meet the licensure or certification requirements in certain occupations.

Update department rules to ensure that students who elect to complete their credential abroad have the opportunity to complete part of their program in the U.S. or to take courses offered by other institutions in the country in which they are enrolled.

ARTISAN TO MASS PRODUCTION

The world changed when capitalists started mass-production. People who left a farm no longer had to be a virtual slave as an apprentice to a master craftsman for years for only the price of food and lodging to learn to be an artisan. No longer could artisan guilds, jealously restrict their supply like the GMOA does in Sri Lanka and boost their earnings. No longer were the products made by artisans only limited to super-rich merchants or the feudal aristocracy. Ordinary factory workers could own anything from a car to a mobile phone to a computer. The workers were not trained at state agencies for the most part.

The factories themselves gave them short term training to be able to work on a section of the assembly line. But it is a different case when it comes to the services sector. When factories closed in the U.S., older people could not easily earn a degree to get a services sector job that younger college-educated persons did. It is not easy to acquire new skills or be ‘re-skilled’ as the saying goes now.

Ironically some of the first universities in the world were created by Artisan guilds, including in Bologna in 1088 as well as in other European cities. Artisan guilds and their monopolies and controls – backed by the state or monarchs – were a defining characteristic of a Mercantilist rent-seeking society.

DEMOCRATISATION OF EDUCATION

But if a society is to progress with the service sector, education must be democratised. Exams that seek to eliminate and pass only 30% (scoring) must give way to assessing real knowledge to produce qualified workers. Like the industrial companies of the past, many tech companies today are offering their own qualifications, in frameworks, in software programs, and so on.

These certificates are well-recognised by the industry. The certifying company intends to create a workforce capable of working with their product. With technology and knowledge changing so fast, any knowledge acquired in the course of a two year or four-year degree would be out of date by the time the student passes out.

IN THE SERVICE SECTOR, THE ABILITIES TO WORK COLLABORATIVELY AND INTERACT WITH DIFFERENT CULTURES ARE VALUED.

Courses will have to be nimble. In the service sector, the abilities to work collaboratively and interact with different cultures are valued. Any kind of regulation that seeks to regulate syllabi or courses would backfire.

SHORT AND SHARP

Any shift to short, specific courses should not be stifled by regulation. Democratisation of education is also being speeded up by technology. Online learning and self-learning is proliferating. No longer would classes be dragged down by laggards, or the less agile left behind as teachers cater to the bright students. Any state regulations that make it difficult for local private training institutes to follow these trends will be detrimental to the future of the country. Some training outfits are already operating cross border. Already the division of labour is happening in services industries, where workers do a tiny bit of work.

In software development, and in many other areas, processes are now getting spliced up into small bits, just like it happened in mass production of hard goods. To have an education sector that cannot cope with the trend, or worse, have regulations that prevent new institutions coming up in a regulatory overkill will be the biggest mistake that the government can make.

The new rule in the U.S. aims to create new accreditation agencies that will be more nimble than the apparently stodgy ones (which are non-state agencies) that do exist. In Sri Lanka state and illiberal legislators had already stopped the country from taking part in global supply chains, with import duties and expropriation that undermined property rights which discourage capital intensive investment.

With regulatory overkill in education and taxes on credit card payments to protect domestic companies like Takas and PickMe, the state can kill the potential in the service sector as well.