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Wednesday, 25 June 2014

International Study - a chimera if you are an African applicant ?

I am currently attempting to procure some tertiary education for a young man from West Africa whom I have sponsored and adopted over the last 5 years, named Abdou. The process has involved me in going through the international student application machinery of several countries - interesting experience - from the perspective of an African. Perhaps worth sharing more widely ?

Through a set of long-running educational projects in The Gambia (see one example on video here) I am involved in several young peoples' plans and hopes in that country. I direct my efforts towards whole schools and communities rather than individuals, but one young man is an exception. He's the smart guy from a poor rural background who as a mere schoolboy in 2008 showed imagination, kindness and courage when he helped me and my son Remy out 5 years ago while we were travelling in Gambia. He became a friend to us both.

The classic education trap in Developing Economies

Abdou has since slogged his way through High School, passing out age 18 in 2011. With my support he has done a diploma in IT, a certificate in ICT, and CISCO CCNA at local private colleges, coming top of the class. At Gambia's top school,  MDI, working alongside the well-endowed scions of the local elite, Abdou has been working as his professor's assistant - presenting the calculations, supporting weaker students, and organising all the classwork, prepping the projects etc. His study in The Gambia since leaving school shows he is a natural engineer, and a capable student, hard working and talented. He basically needs to do an engineering degree, and I have said I will help. Through my work I see enough people of his age, to be sure that it's better for this guy to get abroad and do his degree internationally, rather be subject to the exclusion he'll face at home for being from the wrong side of the tracks in a socially hierarchised small country with a fairly dismal education system.

Among many challenges in this case are that I am not a rich man and cannot buy a solution with money: so the pricing is always going to limit the options. The other challenge is that his WASSCE A level results were poor (four passes at lowest grade) - this is a reflection of a bad secondary school with a crazy policy of entering its better students speculatively for 8 A levels to see if they pass any. The grades don't reflect his ability, but are clearly a problem for university admissions tutors who are told to use these grades as entry criteria. He's trapped in a system of low standards.

Looking around for options for such a student - and having the opportunity to go beyond the front page of the website and deep into the application process - has been very instructive. One good thing: it is clearly possible for a person with full internet access (and for many that's not available or affordable) and a lot of time and research skills to look around and apply globally for education offers. This might seem to be a step forward to a brave new future of globally mobile students.

The reality, however, is that barriers are everywhere, as I soon found out, if you are a talented young African who has not been served well by your schooling system. Here are three experiences. 

NMBU http://www.nmbu.no

I have been impressed by NMBU university in Norway (and the Norway offer of free higher education in English to developing-country students in general is good and humane, with clear processes especially around visa). Their flexible "free mover" offer is also really attractive. However, NMBU policy is to require a year of University before admitting African students. So we can't go further with them for the moment. But for anyone interested, it looks like a great institution with a good course in English for BSc students. 


Malaysia's bid to become an international study hub hasn't been backed up by efficient communication from admissions. There is a good centralised clearing process run by the Government for visas and formalities. But for the school applications, students are at the mercy of a lot of competing and confusing offers. Multimedia University is a private Malaysian establishment which had relevant degrees, low costs ($3500), clear visa regime, and an online application process. https://www.mmu.edu.my/. But they took the view that since maths was one of the speculative Alevels Abdou had taken and failed (having done no classes) - they couldn't admit him. I am trying to get them to engage on the other evidence of maths ability post-school, from the CISCO CCNA and the Diploma in ICT. But they aren't a bespoke service on admissions and basically one cannot discuss it.


Agency INTOHIGHERChina http://www.intohigher.com/china/en-gb/home.aspx has a well packaged offer at a couple of Chinese universities with English-language BSc degrees and an international profile. They have been impressive at processing my enquiry through the London office where they have a sharp China specialist. I am still looking for references on the quality of the school in Dongbei, and am checking the course they have Sept 2014 places for (International Business Management) which is not really the right subject for this student, but is available and the INTO office seem willing to do the legwork to work out if they can accept him. However, the price at £5000 ish (course and accommodation) may be a bit high for what it is - as well actually too high to fund; and his prospects for earning extra cash in China are probably poor. Also, it doesn't appear to join up with Confucius Institute, the gateway to facilitation and financial support. Government and official sites for study in China are a nightmare.

All these enquiry processes have completely changed my view of what educational agents do. The application processes are so messy, the criteria so different, and the offers so hard to measure against any standard, that one gladly would pay agencies their fee to sort it out and reach sensible judgements based on knowledge. The portals like http://www.studyportals.eu/ don't sift the information enough for you to be able to make informed choices. 

My probing of the UK offer gave a quick negative - they seemed inflexible as well as overpriced, and unwelcoming and risky in the visa procedure. I quickly ruled them out as an option.

Market Failure

The market failure this process has revealed for me is the lack of transparency and currency around non-traditional proofs of attainment. The CISCO CCNA, for example, demands and certifies study skills and knowledge that are easily at first year university level of a UK university. Indeed many UK universities use them as second year frameworks. However, they are not expressed in the language of the academic sector: so they can't be counted.

We need a bitcoin of learning, which will bring rigorous currency to the full range of educational experiences, expose those that are sham, and give value to the "school of life" kinds of experience that actually define so many of today's capable learners who are equipped (if given the chance) to bring progress and wealth to their communities. 

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Open Access challenge

Bronx Community College. Photo Ryan Brenizer

The shibboleth of broadening access to higher education was due for a backlash and it's now in full swing with this title from Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson, Community Colleges and the Access Effect: Why Open Admissions Suppresses Achievement

The interview at Inside Higher Ed, the authors bring out two problems that have fed the tragedy of young people funnelled into debt and failure by this agenda. They are the obsession with "success" and "completion" as the criteria of educational performance.

For success, this extract is chilling:

In our book, we also relay the shocking anecdote of a junior, tenure-track math faculty member who disclosed that her department chair had explicitly instructed her and her colleagues to lower standards to achieve the student success rates needed at the institution to maintain or increase the current budget under the new performance funding formula.

On completion, the authors comment that institutions are

so fixated on improving completion rates that academic standards are threatened and alternative postsecondary pathways that would better serve some students and their unique abilities, interests and goals are not as seriously considered as they should be

Now these two criteria, which here are cast as the villains of the plot, are of course the main marketing points of most colleges, and of most tools supplied to colleges such as e-learning platforms. The entire industry needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

Dedicated teachers ("the killer app" as I heard them described at one conference) given time and resources to do their jobs well, are probably the best way of rebalancing a system that's starting to disfunction, and cause damage to society.