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Friday, April 15, 2016

For or Against outsourcing of Liberian schools?

C. Patrick Burrowes has given the following clarion call: Wanted: An international campaign to block outsourcing of Liberian schools. Find below two opposing responses to the call from Wanazuoni, a listserv of Tanzania's Intellectuals. You may also wish to revisit: Outsourcing - A 'Bridge' to Quality Education?


Charles:

Standing in the way of progress, aren't we?

There are three reasons I am quite open to this idea of outsourcing of Liberian schools and may even advocate for the same to be attempted in Tanzania. One, because I see it working in Telecoms. Two, the existing systems have proved to be too ineffective, and, three, if their situation is as bad as ours, things cannot become any worse. 

In Telecoms this is quite normal today. Whole departments such as operations, technology, customer support, asset management, logistics and warehouse, etc. have been outsourced to those better equipped to manage them thus making the companies lean and focused on their core businesses. For example, a customer care agent employed by a contractor will probably handle three times the number of issues at half the pay. Efficiency.

Similarly, I can see the same dynamics at play in the Education system. First, considering the number of teachers and staff in the education department, this is a significant burden administration-wise to the government. It might be better for the government to focus on its core functions which is not managing staff but delivering services. Second, everything that the government can do the other firms can do too. Same teachers will be employed by the contractors - only that they will know how best to deploy and manage them. Third, the government will remain as a client, hence it will determine the curriculum and monitor the achievements of the pre-agreed standards. Fourth, since the consultants will be profit driven they will most likely introduce radical approaches to achieve efficiency. The author argues that good teachers are irreplaceable in early childhood education. Probably, but I think nobody is arguing against using good teachers but for addressing issues related to the system which make their presence irrelevant: number of teachers, classrooms, desks, books, libraries, labs, too many pupils, etc. 

In management and leadership, sometimes we have to experiment to learn and get solutions. When Deng Xiaoping started experimenting with the state-controlled capitalism he didn't even know where he was going with the idea. He only knew that the status quo was unacceptable. So it is wrong to reject this idea at face value. (I am actually impressed that the Liberian government has had the guts to break away from the norms. When this move is compared to the Nyerereian Ujamaa experiment in Tanzania, it is much less disruptive and has significant chances of success.) 

I have some concerns though: it probably would have been better to implement the idea gradually, a couple of districts or regions at a time instead of going wholesale from the beginning. Also, it would have been better to contract three or four firms to introduce an element of competition and giving the best performing firms more schools to administer and vice versa.

The idea is brilliant in my opinion. The campaign organisers are misguided.
Michaela:

Charles, previous posts already show that we don't agree on this one. I think your comments are interesting, but there's an unfair market bias running throughout. 

A few thoughts on your comments:

(1) I don't see the parallel between outsourcing certain services in a telecommunications operation and outsourcing the entire education system (teacher recruitment/training/employment, curriculum design, school building construction, etc). Should the provider prove unsatisfactory, it's not like the Liberian government can just switch to someone seemingly better, as in a competitive market. The entire system, and all the expertise for running it, will be in the hands of a single company, leaving the Liberian government as 'client' in a pretty poor position. 

(2) You say that managing teachers/staff in an education department is a burden to government, so it should focus on its 'core functions' of 'delivering services'. How are these two separate? Delivering quality educational services is, I'd say first and foremost, about managing teachers/their training. 

(3) You say, 'everything that the gov can do the other firms can do too. Same teachers will be employed by the contractors--only they will know how best to deploy and manage them.' This smacks of pro-market ideology, as if firms are always better than government. As noted in the Pambazuka piece, a lot of would-be excellent Charter schools in the states have been an utter disaster. 

(4) You say, 'the government will remain as a client, hence it will determine the curriculum and monitor the achievements of the pre-agreed standards.' So to build on (1), this is assuming some kind of competitive market scenario where the all-powerful client can simply dump a non-performing firm and opt for its competitor. That is not the case here at all. Even if there were multiple firms competing within Liberia, investing in schools, teachers, curricula, etc. presents a sunk cost. You can't go about changing everything on the fly if you're unsatisfied with performance. How is the Liberian government going to go about pressuring BRIDGE to up its game if it is dissatisfied further down the line? It won't have its own administrative capacity to replace the private company, and the resource requirements to contract someone new would be huge. The government is at a fundamental disadvantage in any future negotiations with BRIDGE. 

(5) You say, 'since the consultants will be profit driven they will most likely introduce radical approaches to achieve efficiency.' So profits before education? That should terrify us, not be cause for celebration. 

(6) You say, 'I am actually impressed that the Liberian government has had the guts to break away from the norms.' What norm is the Liberian government breaking with? If anything, it's simply going with the latest fad being propounded by the World Bank, and contracting out to an American company which the leaders of the World Bank are probably very happy to do a little soft diplomacy in supporting. Also, this is as neo-liberal as it gets, and last I checked, that's been the new normal since the 1980s. 

(7) You say, 'It probably would have been better to introduce gradually.' Well yes, at the very least, this needs to be evidence-based policy following a trial run. And as noted in the Pambazuka piece, similar trials have been attempted in the US, with poor results. Meanwhile, the best performing educational systems around the world are those where the government invests heavily in building up the state/administrative capacity to ensure it delivers quality education. Of course those states struggled with poor education services in the past, when they were industrializing and still had high illiteracy rates. But part of their development trajectory involved overcoming those state weaknesses, and building up their education systems to be something they can be proud of today. 

Obviously there are problems with the educational systems as they currently stand in Liberia and Tanzania for that matter. But this just simply is not the way to go. And if you want some more concrete evidence, look at how Tz's East African neighbours have already soured on BRIDGE, as I mentioned in an earlier post. One last thing, education is not just any other commodity to be bought and sold. This is where by own bias comes out but seriously, it should be a right, and a public service, which everyone has access to. However 'efficient' BRIDGE might seem, tallying up the costs (tuition, books, exam fees, etc) shows that for an average to low household budget, this is just an impossible expense. If for no other reason, that is enough to scrap the Liberia plan. 
Charles:

Michaela, I support the model because I can see how it can addresses the weaknesses in the existing system. Critics don't have the luxury of simply highlighting weaknesses but they too have to offer solutions to the existing failed systems. If the problem is BRIDGE not delivering, one ought to find the firm that delivers.

But, first, let's try to align our views a little bit by addressing a few assumptions.

1. I do not propose that the government relinquish its responsibility vis-a-vis educating its people. For this purpose, I consider curriculum development and teachers training to remain the government's responsibility.

2. I only envisage contractors to play the role similar to that of 'Property Managers': they don't build properties but they ensure that they are run profitably. In this case the government will continue to build and expand schools on the basis of needs, while contractors only manage them to deliver quality education (and surplus as profit for themselves, of course.) The return on investment will be measurable quality education.

Now, to go back to the issues you raised.

1. The problem you highlight is related with implementation and not the model itself. The government can choose to, as I propose, contract multiple firms at once and expand their roles on the basis of performance. We do the same things in Telecoms projects. Besides, you assume that the government will have no role to play in education altogether while I assume that only administration of the 'operations' of delivering education will be outsourced. 

2. Focusing on education service delivery is not synonymous with administering hundreds of thousands of teachers. What needs to be outsourced is the administration part while making sure that the quality of service is maintained. In telecoms terms, the service people get may require the work of thousands of engineers, while operators only employ a dozen or two to monitor performance of the contractors. Contractors know that their pay and competitiveness is attached to their performance. So they work hard. Meanwhile the management teams (operators') become better equipped to achieve their KPIs when it is isolated from the mundane tasks of operations (however necessary they are.)

3. It is important to remember that we are looking for alternatives because existing models have failed. Hence, we are comparing failed models with theoretically improved models. Now, I don't know anything about the American charter schools to comment on them, but I think the example would not be appropriate for our environment. Given that the standards are relatively quite high in America the cost of improving quality from one grade to the other will be much higher compared to the cost for comparable gain in performance in Tanzania. 

4. You are assuming a complete overhaul of the educational system is required while I am assuming that only the administrators (and, as a result, operational approach) needs to change. Also, I have already commented that it would have been better if the Liberian government had contracted multiple firms for obvious reasons. That is an obvious weakness. Also, since the councils' and ministries' education officers will remain for oversight purposes, I don't see why the move will be difficult to reverse. Again, it is possible that my focus is on the model (the concept) while yours is on this particular implementation of the concept. The way I see it, I don't see the problems you point out. 

5. What I am saying is that a profit motive will make private firms work harder at delivering the given education quality objectives. Unlike many, the idea of profit as a motivation does not terrify me. Yes, profit and quality may appear as two opposing forces but a good business will understand that for profits to be sustainable quality must be delivered. Besides, isn't it the responsibility of the client to ensure that the quality parameters are met? 

6. Is that the reason the Liberian government's act is considered to be Africa's first? I think it is first because it is a departure from the existing assumptions. I consider that to be impressive. Besides, while we in Africa have been brainwashed to believe that everything that the WB/IMF suggested in their SAP recommendations to be evil, the last time I reviewed some of them they were quite sensible. I mean, any intelligent person will tell you the same thing. E.g. too many government employees - restructure. What is Magufuli trying to do now with ghost workers, not the same thing? Non-performing state companies - privatise. These principles are being applied in the business world all the time. That Africans failed to implement these commonsensical recommendations is not WB/IMF's problem. I am surprised that you uncritically join this mob.

7. That might be true historically but that is not the reason not to hasten the process by attempting alternative models. Besides, where are the resources? I joined an Electronics class at the UDSM in early 2000s without ever being taught fundamentals of Electronics in class - even though it was in O-Level and A-Level syllabuses. How do you propose that Tanzania address a problem like that? And I went to some of the better performing secondary schools in Tanzania. How do you propose that nations like Tanzania and Liberia radically transform their education infrastructure and systems while everything else is not working? 

In my view you are condemning the alternative by proposing more of the same. Alternatively, we can restructure the system. Reduce the weak government's part in operations and allow experts to manage education delivery system. There will be innovation. Novel ideas. But isn't that what we are aiming for?

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