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Monday, 16 July 2007

Directing the invisible hand.....

Times Editorial has some interesting perspectives on financing Zambia's struggling university institutions. The Editor notes that the problem is primarily on the supply side :

Admittedly, the Government has done a lot in supporting these institutions. Funding though inadequate has increased. The money is not enough because the number of people going into university now keeps rising against the original planned enrollment levels. In fact, a lot more others with excellent results are left out because there is simply no longer any room to squeeze them in.
I would go beyond the Editor's immediate observations. The constrained supply of university has also led to poor quality in higher education. The excess demand in higher education has led to the mushrooming of poor and unregulated alternatives to the two universities (CBU and UNZA). Desperate students who cannot get into these two universities and cannot go abroad to study (which is another problem if they never return) often find themselves paying extortionate amounts of money just to get into "B class" colleges offering "accredited" degrees from foreign universities carrying popular but meaningless brand names. Its not uncommon to hear of "accredited" institutions without credibility which are later shut down for misleading students. The sad thing of course is that often these students are from the poorest of backgrounds - who cannot corrupt their way into UNZA/CBU places or cannot afford to study abroad. Zambia's poor therefore suffer most from the capacity constraint and this does not bode well for the nation's quest to break intergenerational poverty. Constrained capacity is robing the poor while Government stands by!

Its my view therefore that the Editor's assessment needs clarification. Private provision is already taking place. It is responding to the excess demand, but the problem is that this private provision is operating in an unregulated educational market. If regulatory standards where high (and uncorrupted) then we would have a better chance of deliver an educational infrastructure that supports a growing economy. Instead what we have are cheap and low quality colleges which are not doing much to get the poorest members of our society to achieve the best returns from educational investment. This is the classic case in which the invisible hands needs some effective direction. A good start would be a clearly defined framework safe from corruption in which Government regulates some of these institutions better to ensure there’s a minimum level of good education being provided.

The other issue of course is pace. With the universities virtually full, better regulation of these new institutions must come with perhaps a push to provincial universities. People need to be educated where they are and the university courses should reflect provincial priorities (it also helps to ease the brain drain). Government's position has always been than there's not enough money to go round. I am also skeptical whether a Government which struggles to maintain UNZA and CBU can possibly maintain 7 more universities – possibly not. However, the "lack of funds" argument does not really stack up because Zambia is not even spending enough as a share of GDP to claim there's no money for education. See the chart below:


Perhaps what the Editor should have been asking, is why the Government appears to spend less compared to other SADC nations?

The other problem we need to deal with is one I have touched upon - corruption. I was surprised when I did a stroll poll among friends, on what they felt was the most corrupt ministry in Zambia. Ministry of Education came top just ahead of Home Affairs, elbowing Department of Health to 3rd place. This could just be perceptions, but there’s a view that whether you get to UNZA or CBU depends not on your ability always but on who you know and how much “side payments” you are willing to make. This undoubtedly does mean that these institutions are not necessarily getting the brightest minds. In a nation in which university capacity is severely constrained the last thing you want is a corrupt and inefficient system of allocating places!

3 comments:

  1. In India there is a national accreditation board and if your college isn't accredited by them then it's illegal to put your degree on your resume.

    If a foreign school wants to open a branch in India they have to be accredited in both countries. The degrees have to be equivelent.

    That seems reasonable if they really are accredited over seas.

    India has an advantage because they have more PHDs to draw from to start new universities.

    I think in Zambia maybe there need to be other degrees as well besides just the four year colleges. Something like community colleges in America that offer two year degrees. Especially more techinical schools.

    I kind of feel like the government should focus on industries that are going to generate the most jobs like farming and mining.

    Anyway, I'm rambling now.

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  2. "People need to be educated where they are and the university courses should reflect provincial priorities." -Cho

    I think that this is a good direction to take, local expertise is likely to be more valuable to a majority of this generation of students than more globally applicable and interchangeable brands of education. If the underlying goal is sustainable development and decreasing brain drain, then local experts in local business, law, biology, geology, agriculture, climate, culture and tradition would seem to be more useful in the near term than those with more broadly marketable value.

    One way to make up the shortfall in educational infrastructure is to make use of existing local professionals as a teaching resource. Use wage and/or tax incentives for formal apprenticeships, where the teacher receives compensation for successfully establishing practical competence and licensing of pupils within the workplace. While such informal education may not qualify one to seek further education or employment abroad, for practical professionals like surveyors, carpenters, plumbers, machinists or specialized farmers the practical knowledge of local conditions is most important to implement sustainable development. As long as the licensing standards are the same for both formal institutional students and informal workplace students, then both systems ought to be able to grow in parallel without degrading the competence of graduates.

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  3. Cho
    What baffles me is that since independence we've only managed to build 2 universities for the entire nation. Higher education needs to be a priority for whatever adminstration is in government.

    One of the things that the ministry of education should vigorously pursue is the accreditation of local colleges to offer university of Zambia and CBU courses. They've started to do this but the pace at which they are moving cannot keep up with the secondary school graduates that qualify for university entrance.

    And of course I agree with you that there needs to be a proper process for the accrediation of private colleges and secondary schools. Some grade 12 pupils did not sit for their final exams last year because their schools were not registered. Now how this goes unchecked by the ministry of education is beyond me. So there needs to be stiffer regulations for educational institutions so that higher education standards can be attained.

    While many people might think goverment's direct involvement in the building of infrastructure is fast becoming extinct I feel that African governments MUST invest in infrastructure and not leave it to the private sector to take the lead. We could have the same problems of exploitation that is happening in America with a highly commercialised health care industry only this time it will be with education.
    Goverment has a moral and civic duty to ensure that it's citizens are well educated so that they can effectively contribute to the economy.

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