Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Breaking the monopoly on state sanctioned diplomas: Enter McEducation

The United Kingdom has often been at the forefront of privatization, and it has taken another step in that direction. Private businesses can now deliver their own diplomas in lieu of end of studies diplomas typically delivered by state sanctioned schools (A-Level). Of course, such businesses need to be accredited as well, and the first batch includes a low cost airline (FlyBe), a railway company (Network Rail) and McDonald's. Yes, McDonald's.

The experience you accumulate from flipping burgers to managing a shift can now count towards a diploma that is supposed to open the doors to a university education. That in itself is not new, as some universities are willing to accept an appropriate work experience as a replacement for a high school degree (in US terms). The difference here is that degrees are supposed to be transferable. An accredited A-Level degree is an A-Level degree, whether it is from Eton or McDonald's. Universities are not so sure, however, claiming that "McQualifications" have a much too narrow focus and are academically not sufficiently rigorous.

This brings us closer to the US situations, where universities are essentially free to choose whatever they want for admission criteria, and there is plenty of evidence that a (reputable and good) high school diploma is only a minor part for admission to, say, Ivy League schools. Isn't public service, leadership and sports achievement that potential students are suppose to exhibit essentially the same as the hands-on experience that McDonald's and others would document?

I suppose the point of the experience in the United Kingdom is the break the monopoly educational institutions have in delivering diplomas. Documenting other aspects of human capital that pure academic work is certainly of interest, much like apprenticeship has done for centuries in Germanic countries. But can recommendation letters from employers not do the same? And how can one distinguish the quality of diplomas across the soon numerous providers? In no time, private entrepreneurship will yield a firm that will provide a uniform test, call it SAT, based on some rigid and easy to verify criteria. This new test will then for all practical purposes replace the plethora of diplomas that have themselves replaced the uniform diploma the government was providing before. Would then anything have changed, except some confusion? And as the United States show, would this not yield a private monopoly instead of a public one? Have we really gained?


BreadBox said...

Actually, British high schools have never really issued diplomas: just as most British universities a couple of decades ago had no idea what an "official transcript" was --- I sat down with my academic adviser and invented a letter that might cover the topics that grad schools wanted to see, and walked over to the appropriate office to get the official seal on it!

A-levels are administered by independent bodies (typically associated with but quasi-independent of a university or universities): my school chose to have their students take the Oxford Board O and A levels. The exams are graded completely blind, in a completely different part of the country: one's teacher had no direct influence on the grade one received on an A-level, other than how good a job they had already done in teaching you.
Private and "Public" (exclusive, private) schools have long existed in the UK. Most of them still use the A and O levels as assessment tools. A few schools offer the chance to study for the International Baccalaureate. And the system of O and A levels has be eviscerated in the past fifteen or twenty years, with exams being made easier, and possibly giving more local control to teachers (and in a disastrous move, giving the idea that short term learning is sufficient, instead of encouraging learning a body of material as a two year task: which really does emphasize long term study habits). All of my first hand knowledge is out of date, but certainly the system has been other than you have described it: and probably still is too.


Economic Logician said...

Point well taken about the British system. It remains that the latest move will increase the complexity of figuring out what a diploma is worth, and that ultimately the solution will be that some sort of uniform testing agency will emerge.

BreadBox said...

Finally got round to noticing that you had followed up: I guess that my main point was that there never were diplomas: if they exist now, then I think that it's a bad thing.
And if they move to a system of national tests, that's great, so long as it has the good point of the system of national tests they used to have for decades.
As a professional in the ed biz in the US, I hate the fact that schools have no check on their ability to promote their favourite candidates, except for standardized tests such as the SAT (and I feel that they are useless: I can score well on subjects I know little about because I am good at standardized tests). The A level system was that you took (if I recall correctly from thrumptysevix years ago) two or three three hour papers, occasionally with a minority component being multiple choice: in my case, I did double mathematics, physics and economics, and the economics exam had one multiple choice paper worth 25% or so: the other papers were all long answer, free response. I can't, by and large, in a university setting here at a decent mid-level university, set questions that hard.