Thursday, August 26, 2010

"For profit" colleges attacked while problems with non-profits are overlooked

The American higher education community contains three separate constituencies: They are public and private non-profit institutions, and proprietary or for-profit enterprises. There has long been a polite tension between the nation’s public and private non-profit higher education institutions. Both are in competition, in one way or another, for prestige, students, faculty, and philanthropy, and at the state and federal troughs. They expend millions of their operating budgets on lobbyists to promote individual institutions and their sectors in state capitals and Washington. Their respectful squabbles are periodically noted in the higher education and public media. Both not-for-profits appear to have a common perceived enemy that prompts their public indignation. In a tacit your-enemy-is-my-enemy alliance, they share a common enemy: for-profit higher education.

The Government Accountability Office’s— “the investigative arm of Congress” —undercover investigation of for-profit recruiting practices has been predictably followed by Congressional hearings and accompanying media attention. The latter has been particularly true in higher education’s major trade presses. These loyal allies tend to consistently promote a non-profit/public agenda at the expense of the for-profits. One higher education trade paper described the investigation as uncovering the “rot” in the for-profit sector.

The whole spectacle has prompted predictable sanctimonious delight among higher education’s self-ordained elite sectors—non-profit private and publicly funded institutions and their trade group lobbyists. The findings confirm their zealot belief that any enterprise that does not share their non-profit orientation must be suspect. How else could the for-profits be steadily attracting more students in recent years? They must cheat and have been finally caught in the act— or so the non-profits want to rationalize the otherwise bad news. The College Board and National Center for Education Statistics respectively report:

The proportion of all degrees that were awarded by for-profit institutions increased from 3% to 7% between 1995-96 and 2005-06. In 1995-96, 9% of associate degrees were granted by for-profit institutions. A decade later, that proportion was 15%.

The ratio of students attending private nonprofit colleges to for-profit colleges has fallen from 3 to 1 to approximately 2 to 1.

A relatively few bad actors have actually been caught, yet the whole for-profit higher education sector is now being castigated for unscrupulously selling degree programs to naïve prospective students that lead to careers with low pay, limited employment opportunities and huge education debt. The same might be asked of the flood of attorneys and public relations grads that flood the job market each year.

A cursory examination of the program recruitment brochures published by many second-tier-and-below non-profits and publics will suggest similar questionable marketing practices. The disparity between their brochure hype and the realities presented in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Occupational Outlook Handbook is sobering. These sanctimonious not-for-profits should undergo the same undercover scrutiny. Higher education consumers deserve a level playing field.


Why does a British Conservative minister want to be a Stalinist social engineer?

Can we really believe what we are hearing? After only 100 days in power, the Tories’ David Willetts is sounding like a tired Labour minister bankrupt of ideas.

Once again it is education and social mobility that is the issue. Mr Willetts, the Coalition’s higher education minister, is right to be concerned. But he is very wrong on who to blame and what to do about it. He wants universities to promote social mobility by accepting candidates from poor backgrounds - even if their A-levels are lower than those of middle-class applicants.

But this is nonsense. It is not the universities who are at fault where this country’s lamentable failure over education and social mobility is concerned. Nor can they be expected to magically set everything right by giving a handful of young people the chance of a decent degree.

The problems are more fundamental and widespread. Our education system is a mess and every summer young people from every stratum of society are having their hopes blighted and their futures thrown away as a result. Universities are merely where the casualties of our education system hit the buffers.

Their heartbreak was summed up this week for me by two young men. One is the son of my neighbour. A bright, hard-working boy at a private school, he has just got four As at AS level.

Great, I said, but he was not happy. Two of his modules were a few marks short of 80 per cent. And in the surreal world of our educational system, he feared this would cost him a place at a good university next year.

At the other end of the spectrum is a young man I met at an inner-city state school. He has been declared academically gifted - in the top 10 per cent - under a government scheme. Surely he would be the perfect candidate for a top university. However, this summer, he is one of the 14.3 per cent of gifted pupils who failed to get five good GCSEs. He admits he is ‘bored out of my mind’ at school and is in trouble with the police.

Responsibility for the plight of these two young men lies squarely with the last government. Too many of our state schools are just not good enough and no amount of social engineering - squeezing out bright, middle-class teenagers to fit impoverished youngsters into our universities - is going to put it right.

Labour refused to address the real causes of education failure: too much government interference, poor heads and teachers who are just not up to the job.

Of course, no Labour minister was going to tackle bad teaching, even in the cause of social mobility. Why? Because they preferred to see the children of the poorest families fail year after year rather than take on the powerful teaching unions.

This was coupled to Labour’s determination to turn schools into a PR department of government. The first priority of schools was to make the government look good - education took second place as students were pushed into taking easier and easier exams and got better and better grades.

Now, just when we hoped for a change, here is more of the same. Instead of pointing out the problems and offering solutions to the state of education in this country, David Willetts is taking Labour’s easy way out and ordering around our universities, demanding that they indulge in social engineering.

He should take note of the remarks made this week by Dr John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

Dr Dunford said the best GCSE candidates in state schools aren’t being given the chance to excel, not through any lack of social mobility, but because of government exam league tables. The league tables focus on the percentage of pupils getting five A* to C grades. This means schools concentrate on getting C grades rather than stretching the brightest pupils. Dr Dunford described the situation as ‘one of the perverse incentives’ of the tables.

This is just one example of schools valuing their place in the league tables over the interests of their pupils. In order to meet government targets, schools are preventing able students from studying ‘difficult’ subjects, such as science and languages. But it is these traditional subjects that top universities want and why private school pupils appear to be favoured.

Private school pupils make up just 7 per cent of the school population, but get 37 per cent of A grades in chemistry. This is not for lack of gifted chemist students in the state sector — I met a number when I was researching my report on education. It is because too many state schools encourage students to take the vocational equivalent of a GCSE, which has double the league table value of a GCSE despite having no written examination.

As Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge, said: ‘We know the school’s brightest students are on track to get As, but in subject combinations that essentially rule them out.’

This has had devastating consequences for poor students. They have to trust their schools to have their best interests at heart. But too often this is just not the case. It is a pity David Willetts is not taking their side.

Dilemma: Sir Richard Sykes, former rector of Imperial College, London, sums up the dilemma this presents the best universities: ‘The belief is that there are thousands of kids out there who come from poorer backgrounds that are geniuses - there may be, but we can’t take them at 18 if they’ve not been educated.’

Instead of addressing this situation, in a wonderful piece of perverse logic worthy of his Labour predecessors, David Willetts is attacking the one part of our education system that is working - universities.

Our top universities enjoy an international reputation. They are swamped by applications at home and abroad. In the real world, any company in those fortunate circumstances would expand. Instead, what is happening?

The Government has stopped good universities expanding in the way they want — by taking on the best students — and has created the present chaotic system.

Universities are turning away pupils with straight As, like my neighbour’s son, because the Government fines them £3,700 for every student that they recruit above ‘centrally planned quotas’.

And it is here that you have to pinch yourself. Centrally planned quotas? Are we living in Stalinist Russia with David Willetts as the Chief Commissar? Well, for the purposes of higher education, we are.

To understand the absurdity of the situation, apply the same concept to Tesco. You can just imagine Commissar Willetts addressing the supermarket’s management. ‘Your sales of cornflakes has doubled this month? Cut the supply by half or we will fine you for every extra packet you sell.’

But it gets even more perverse. Universities may be turning away British school leavers in their droves, but non-EU students get a different reception. They are warmly welcomed and, indeed, wooed. The reason is simple. Universities can charge foreign students £10,000 a year. They get less than a third of that for each British student.

Foreign students contribute £3 billion a year to universities — and this is vital when the Government is imposing funding cuts of at least a quarter. So desperate are universities for funding that they offer places to foreign, fee-paying students with results that are up to two grades lower than the hard-working son of my neighbour.

As a lecturer at Sheffield University remarked: ‘Yes, it’s a funny situation, but that’s how it is. It’s Government policy.’

In other words, it’s fine to sell those scarce packets of cornflakes to India or China, but don’t let anyone from Britain get their hands on one.

We have seen the effect of 13 disastrous years of Labour on our education system. We had hoped for something better from the Conservatives. Education Secretary Michael Gove is promising an imaginative and radical overhaul of our schools. Why not the same for our universities?


Australian students asked to plan lethal 'terror attack'

The teacher must be some sort of Leftist nut

Western Australia's Education Department chief has apologised after a high school teacher set students an assignment to plan a terrorist attack to kill innocent people.

The society and environment teacher at the Kalgoorlie-Boulder Community High School asked Year 10 students to pretend they were a terrorist planning a chemical or biological attack on "an unsuspecting Australian community". "Your goal is to kill the MOST innocent civilians in order to get your message across," the assignment read. The students had to explain their choice of victims and decide the best time and place to release their weapon.

The assignment was withdrawn and the teacher counselled following a complaint made to the school after one 15-year-old student refused to do it, saying she was horrified and disgusted.

Education Department Director-General Sharyn O'Neill on Wednesday said the teacher had exercised "poor judgement" and was remorseful. She said the teacher, who has been teaching for three years, was "well intentioned" and her heart was "in it for the kids".

Ms O'Neill said her "deepest sympathy" was with families of victims of terrorism who may have been offended by the assignment. "We are very sorry for the pain and discomfort that this situation has caused," she said. "Certainly no ill was meant by this assessment task. I'm incredibly disappointed with the assessment item that was set by the teacher. "I think it was inappropriate, it was insensitive and rightly, people are upset. "This is not what we expect of professional educators."

School principal Terry Martino said he had the assignment withdrawn as soon as he was aware of its content, and he had talked to the teacher. "This is one mistake by a hardworking, keen young teacher who is highly regarded by staff, students and community," he told the West Australian.

Education Minister Liz Constable said she was pleased Mr Martino acted quickly to ensure the assignment was withdrawn and the teacher was counselled. "It was certainly an inappropriate method of exploring the issue of conflict and had the potential to offend and disturb parents and impressionable students," she said. "Schools take the education and teaching of these issues very seriously but this must be done in an appropriate way."

State School Teachers Union president Anne Gisborne said Mr Martino had taken the "appropriate" action under the circumstances. "I don't know the motivation behind the program... in hindsight the teacher is probably wishing they hadn't done this." Ms Gisborne said the objectives of the assignment could have been achieved in a more sensitive manner.

The issue ran hot on talkback radio in Perth on Wednesday with one caller saying he had a son fighting in Afghanistan who he thought would not appreciate the assignment. Another caller told Fairfax Radio the teacher should be jailed for giving the students the assignment.


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