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Friday, 24 July 2015

Public Universities: get the basics right, management in, and the politicians out

The Role of Public Universities

It makes me sad to read about the state of some public universities in low and middle income countries. The list of challenges is always the same: incoming students who are insufficiently prepared academically and not university ready, a library without books, departments without or insufficient number of qualified lecturers,  inadequate services of all kinds, run down physical infrastructure, due to lack of maintenance, unreliable slow internet, and worse than all that put together: the continuous attack by those practicing the personalized politics of pompous and inflated ego's, while pursuing narrow personal interests.

Evidently, these circumstances greatly affects the quality of education and eventually the employability of the graduates. Although the students may be very driven and patriotic, the lacunae in their primary and secondary education must be addressed before a university level program can effectively be delivered, meaning its educational outcomes are achieved. The PISA surveys for example, indicate that at the age of 15 pupils in Chile - a rather highly developed country - pupils are lagging 6 years behind in comparison to OECD countries. 6 years, that is basically the duration of the primary school. Another sad statistic: regarding literacy and enrollment ratio the developing years is 100 years behind the industrialized countries. A full century, that is shocking.

We could of course ask whether we need public universities at all, and whether private universities run for profit (although nominally non-profit) and governed like corporations can't do the job. My answer is "no" although of course I can not be sure what would happen if public universities disappear and are closed. Apart from their roles as the conscience of society and bastions of truth, I feel something intangible would be lost. 

Without the institutional autonomy which is a condition for academic freedom and intellectual achievement, lecturers are merely filling the space in front of the classroom. They have little incentive to contribute to the development of the institution, or to do research and expand the frontiers of knowledge. In a more practical sense, certain programs which are expensive to deliver and for which there is no capacity to pay cost-covering tuition fees, like many science and engineering programs, would no longer be offered.

Addressing the Challenges

My sadness is compounded by the realization of how unnecessary it is to put up with these limitations and accept them as given. We must start by realizing that even in developing countries, thanks to the internet, access to high quality information and resources for higher education is practically free.

Let' s start with the lacunae of the incoming students. Now effective remedial teaching can be rolled out online for those students with identified weaknesses in a cost effective manner. The content and methods are available freely online. 

Secondly, the library without books, can stay without books as long as access to online materials is provided. Eventually, of course, books and automated library systems will need to be introduced.

Thirdly, the absence of qualified lecturers is a spatially relative scarcity, not an absolute scarcity. The investments in higher education in previous generations have led to a brain drain. Some of those lecturers based of shore, however, are willing and eager for a nominal fee to teach and interact with students, but without leaving their office.  No need to pay extortionate hotel rates and air tickets, or procure permits, visa and vaccinations. 

Other solutions to the relative shortage of lecturers is to provide special allowances or incentives for qualified academics to return to their home countries. This was done by countries like Hong Kong and Singapore, who now have several universities in the top 100 of the major rankings.

Fourthly, as to the management of physical infrastructure, apparently the simplest of challenges, is actually the hardest to address. The mindset of breakdown maintenance instead of regulated planned maintenance is hard to eradicate, even though breakdown maintenance costs substantially more. The culture of the last minute is equally hard to counter. In public universities another challenge is the "public sector mentality"  where the sense of entitlement to a job for life dwarfs the sense of responsibility of actually performing the job.

If, however, an approach is taken that everybody at the university should put in the required hours and work effectively towards complying with their job description and targets, there is no reasons why infrastructure can not be properly maintained, even if it shows all signs of age. Similarly, there would be no reason why effective teaching and learning can not take place, and post graduate programs and research projects be run successfully.


Apart from the infrastructure issues all preceding challenge hinge upon reliable provision of electric power and fast internet. Fortunately, great advances have been made in economical diesel generator set technology, solar and wind power. Due to high electricity prices in many developing countries, investments in renewable energy have a pay for themselves in as little as 6 months. After 6 months you actually start to make money from your investment in solar cells or wind turbines. There are low cost options of storing energy temporarily with inertia wheels, or fly wheels, that will provide continuous and high quality power.

As to the internet, if local providers can not provide fibre connections reliably and economically, since 2 years or so there is fast internet through satellite provided by O3B. The investments have a pay back period of less than 2 years. Because O3B uses low orbit satellites, the latency or speed is similar to fibre. For the same reason, O3B can provide more bandwidth at a price 7 to 10 times lower that conventional geo-stationary satellite solution.

Last but not least, all higher education institutions, except in some oil rich Arab states, will complain their level of funding is inadequate. If universities, however, adapt their pedagogies and deliver blended learning (part presential part online) and become integrate dual delivery universities, the size of on campus operations can simply be adapted to the funding level, and the rest of the students can be served off campus through blended courses.

Small group teaching methods, such as problem based learning, may appear to be more costly, but in fact they are less costly and more effective due to internet technology. The traditional highly specialised lecturers becomes a course developer and facilitator, while the activities that are presential can be delivered by less highly paid, adjunct tutors.

The history of technology is rife with examples of how the impact of any new technology takes 4 or 5 decades to be felt. I am hopeful that because information is now available freely and ubiquitously, the conundrum on how to run and fund higher education and public universities in low income countries can be solved.


The white elephant in the room however is the interference driven by oversized ego's and narrow personal interest in university affairs by the political establishment. If they don't attack the universities through the law by limiting or eliminating their autonomy, they smother them by cutting off their funding, or haphazardly transferring or not transferring funds.

For this there is no amount of smart management or technology that can fix it. The only thing we can do is to name and to shame. We must however identify those in the civil service or in Parliament responsible for the attack on public university and counter these attacks in a pro-active manner. Their agenda is usually to allow foreign funded private universities to come in and give them a license, at a price of course.

If however the university community and the general public allows the attack on public universities to continue, then we must conclude that the role of public universities in developing countries will soon end. There is a limit to what good policies, wise leadership and efficient management can achieve. There is however no limit to what can be wiped out by destructive forces of narrow minded politics; public universities and independent newspapers being of course at the top of the politicians' hit list.

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