Profit must not pervert education

Purdue University’s controversial acquisition of Kaplan University reflects the failure of for-profit education. But, under Trump, it may have an unwelcome resurgence, warns Felipe Fernández-Armesto

June 1, 2017
Elly Walton illustration (1 June 2017)
Source: Elly Walton

“The profit per boy is £40.”

The utterance conjured Dickensian visions of a calculatingly finger-licking Fagan, or a pitiless mill owner, or even a slave-marketeer, prodding the muscles of small merchandise and critically examining their teeth. But the independent-school headmaster, from whose lips I heard the pronouncement more than 40 years ago, was not talking about the rewards of ruthless exploitation. He was running a charitable institution, where none of the trustees, staff or teachers thought of making money out of boys. The “profit” he spoke of wasn’t commercial gain but the average annual surplus available for re-investment in teaching after the payment of all costs.

At the time, the usage seemed innocuous to me. I did not know that there was any such thing as education for profit outside typing schools or secretarial colleges or other such glass menageries. Even what we called “private” schools or “prep” schools in those days were often trusts, or, if they were proprietary establishments, were commonly the results of profound teaching vocations, from which their owners made only modest livings. Education, I thought, resembled a work of mercy and I would no more expect to make money out of it than from visiting the sick or comforting the dying. When I turned to teaching as a career, I cheerfully renounced riches. I have always felt guilty at accepting a stipend for my work, justifying it as a necessary evil.

We do not know what fees were charged at the Lyceum or the Academy: although they were in a sense professional schools, designed to equip rhetoricians as well as to educate the elite, I can’t imagine Plato or Aristotle grubbing for cash. Socrates berated the sophists for treating teaching as a commodity. Confucius, as far as we know, depended on his pupils’ fees, but they probably paid them in a spirit of charity and gratitude, not as part of a relationship of service provider and customer. The modern liberal shibboleth that education is a right reinforced revulsion from the notion that profit is proper for universities or schools. In the latest related scandal, the American Association of University Professors responded with magnificent disdain to the news that Purdue University, one of my home state’s top public institutions of higher education, had bought for-profit Kaplan University from its owners: “Non-profit institutions serve the public good; for-profit private institutions serve corporate interests. The two should not mix.” Most educators agree. The obvious inference is that profit should not be allowed to pervert education. Learning and looting are incompatible: education is unquantifiable and soars beyond the bottom line. How did we ever slide into the well-greased world of “Trump University”, education management organisations, “pathway colleges”, Jo Johnson and Betsy DeVos?

Proponents of profit deploy all the Devil’s best arguments. “I will expand choice,” he says, sweeping expansive gestures over the vista from Tibidabo. “I will save the state’s money,” he promises, “if only thou wilt fall down and worship me”, while he modifies his pitchfork to rake in billions in tax-funded subsidies. “I will serve the common good,” he proclaims, rattling silver tongue against gold fillings, “by channelling resources into the vocational training that society needs. I will provide pathways to help recruitment for elite research universities,” – or so he says, without admitting that the pathway is primrose-paved. “I will serve my student-customers,” he avers, while heating up the torture tongs. “I will raise standards,” he suggests, “by making teachers responsive to investors’ standards”, concealing the fact that those “standards” consist of selling cheap produce at high prices.

Diabolical imagery comes easily to Mammon’s victims. “Mitch Daniels Wants to Sell the Soul of Public Education” was the headline of a recent blog on the website of the AAUP’s magazine, excoriating the Purdue president for the Kaplan acquisition. The author was Bill Mullen, a Purdue professor of English. As Kaplan University has been investigated for allegedly hiring unqualified teachers, deploying intrusive sales methods and making misleading claims, academic wariness is understandable.

Kaplan’s demise is a sign of widespread for-profit failure in the US. In recent years, a series of for-profit ventures in education have folded or faded, including Knowledge Universe, floated with billions of dollars to control individuals’ learning lives “from cradle to grave”, News Corp’s “Amplify” scheme, launched to realise Rupert Murdoch’s vision of exploiting “a $500 billion (£350 million) sector”, and the dreaded Trump University, which New York’s attorney general denounced as a fraud. In 2015, Corinthian Colleges, which turned over up to $1.4 billion dollars a year on 107 campuses, collapsed under a barrage of accusations of bizarre misdeeds, including – according to a report in the Huffington Post – “counting a food service job at Taco Bell as placement in the field for an accounting graduate”.

Profiteers often end up cheating their clients and – worse by some ethical standards – impoverishing their investors. But they are showing menacing resilience. A recent report in The New York Times quotes the for-profit mogul, Carl Barney, as sighing relievedly: “Let’s say the carnage for the for-profit sector has stopped.”

The empowerment of Trump and DeVos has given a failing aberration a new opportunity and restored the market value of its stock. Let’s hope investors keep their money – by withholding it from a nasty, shabby form of business that may moderate the price of training but always raises the cost, while eroding the value, of education.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history at the University of Notre Dame in the US.

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