Public and private universities

If you were to take a look at a list of private universities and colleges in the United States – for example, here – you would immediately see many of the best and most prominent universities in the world. On the other hand in these islands there are almost no private universities, the only notable exception being the University of Buckingham in England. But if you were to look for Buckingham in the very latest British university league table, you would not find it; it is too small (it has only around 800 students), and its ranking could not therefore easily be calculated. While it has some admirers, on the whole it is seen as being a peripheral institution in British higher education. In Ireland on the other hand there is a hugely successful private university-level institution, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), though this is a specialist private medical school with a small science Faculty, and therefore strictly speaking not a university; it is however a recognised college of the National University of Ireland and is recognised for the quality of both its teaching and its research.

The principal characteristic of a private university is that it is not publicly funded. In other words, students must pay the full economic cost of their programmes of study. A strict interpretation of the ‘private’ label could also suggest that the institution must not take public funding for research purposes; but any institution that adopts that policy will not be a major research player. RCSI in Ireland does compete for public research funding, and has tended to be very successful in doing so.

It has occasionally been asked whether a private university model could succeed in these islands, as it clearly has in the United States. There are a number of considerations that influence the answer. First, the public/private distinction is not as easy to maintain here as it has been in America. Irish universities are all in receipt of public funding, but on the other hand all of them also have at least some fairly significant income from non-State sources; my own university, DCU, has the highest income in percentage terms from non-State sources. Furthermore, all universities under statute are autonomous, and are free to devise their own strategic direction, design their own curriculum, decide on their own research policy, maintain an autonomous financial strategy, and so forth. In other words, despite public funding they operate in accordance with many of the principles that would, elsewhere, be seen as characteristic of private universities.

On the other hand, a key factor that has determined the success of the American private university – the accumulation of very substantial endowments through philanthropy and the support of alumni – has not appeared to be available, or at least is available only in a very modest form, in Ireland. And finally, the idea of private higher education being actually of higher quality and also driven by considerations of excellence rather than profit is not yet common here. The top private US universities are in fact not-for-profit organisations.

Then again, the example of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland is one that may merit closer investigation. While not a general university, it has managed to develop a profile within its specialism that does in many ways closely match the private US model, including a very healthy financial framework.

Clearly the type of institution that has been typical in the Irish university sector is one that derives the greater part of its income from the taxpayer and is in certain key contexts regulated by the state. It is likely that this model will continue to define Irish higher education for the foreseeable future. However, the gradual erosion of public funding may eventually persuade some institutions to take on some other characteristics of private universities, and a mixed model may yet become more typical. If properly managed, it could make a contribution to the sector.

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11 Comments on “Public and private universities”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Of course, the US also has some very public universities, Berkeley obviously and lots of others. The distinction is not in predominately in governance, or where they get research funding, or how they raise money from other sources, but in how they are paid for teaching undergraduates. They all charge fees, but public universities charge less, and are not free in what they charge, because their teaching of undergraduates is state subsidized.

    The Universities here are not state bodies and are reasonably autonomous, or would be if the spirit of the Universities Act was better followed: it is a pity that the government threatens to reduce what it pays us for teaching undergraduates if we try to build up an endowment, to use your example, and that situation won’t change when we start charging undergraduate fees because these fees won’t be full fees.

    There would be many advantages to charging full fees in terms of autonomy and, indeed, competition between universities; it also has some odd benefits, such as monetizing the arts-humanities. However, we can never become private universities in this sense because we are in the EU, if we charged students what it costs to educate them, many would go elsewhere and not return.

    Does RCSI receive no state funding for teaching its undergraduates?

  2. Aoife Citizen Says:

    “RCSI is part of the Irish Government ‘Free Fees’ initiative. EU School leavers tuition fees are paid by the Higher Education Authority (HEA)”


    “Graduate Medicine €25,780 (€ 12,780 payable by the student and €13,000 paid for by the HEA)”

    • Sorry, I should have explained this better: yes, under ‘free fees’ RCSI gets the fees paid on behalf of the student by the state. But RCSI gets no recurrent grant, which all the universities get.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        How interesting and how remarkable; I never quite knew what the situation was with RCSI. How much would you have to charge your students to compensate for the loss of both the free fees money and the block grant?

  3. Vincent Says:

    The idea that the Ivy League is private is a bit vague at best when there is such a seamless movement back and forth between Governmental appointment and Commonroom. A look at how they operated when they were first established gives the clue why this is so. While the Catholic Universities are no more private in reality.
    I’m with Aoife, I think the funding issue is a bit of a redherring, for out of the exchequer or out of fees its all from the same pocket.
    What bites me is the foolishness of the situation at the moment, where even with Free-ish fees those who actually need the support are very effectively blocked from entry by the extra cash available being used to push up prices on everything else.
    Do I understand you, the RCSI have their own hospital along with all the ancillary bit and bobs payed by themselves.

  4. pennybridged Says:

    Yes, I’ve found it curious that, in this country, private third level education seems to be on a lower status than its public equivalent. The public sector attracts a more able and higher calibre student body, and has the benefit of sources of funding that somehow are not available to the private sector.

    However, I do take issue with the comment “the idea of private higher education being actually of higher quality and also driven by considerations of excellence rather than profit is not yet common here”. Yes, private third level institutions in this country are driven by profit above all else. But the statement does nothing to recognise the talented, hard-working lecturing staff in those institutions.

    Lecturers are expected to put in a significant amount of classroom time with students every year, not to mention pastoral support and trouble-shooting sessions. By contributing the entire financial cost of their education many of the students are demanding on lecturing and other resources on offer. Lecturer’s work is made even more challenging and demanding given the lower ability students our institutions attract.

    There has been much talk in your blog at the moment about what a university is for. Unlike the public sector, teaching is the dominant activity in the private 3rd level sector. Lecturing staff are not distracted by research pursuits (though, I can see much value in research activities) or by a requirement to bring funding into the institution. If they want to pursue research (for example, a PhD) it is done on the lecturer’s own time and financing.

    Having had experience of being a student in 3 different public sector universities in this country, I am aware of the mixed standards of teaching on offer by those public institutions. I would even go so far as to say that as lecturers, many in the 3rd level private sector could teach a thing or two to their public sector equivalents.

    Admittedly, not all lecturers in the private sector have this dedication but a sweeping statement emphasising profit over value does not do justice to those who strive against all sorts of obstacles for excellence in what they do.

    At the end of the day, whether I like it or not, the image of private 3rd level education in Ireland is inferior to the public sector institutions. It’s just a shame that image doesn’t reflect the quality work and excellence that many of its lecturing staff strive for.

    • I do appreciate your points, Pennybridged. I did not mention the private colleges in Ireland – partly because none of them has university status. but I know there are many dedicated lecturers who work in them.

  5. iain Says:

    It’s always interesting for us non-nationals to watch and listen to the debates in Ireland re public vs private. What strikes me in particular is the general antipathy towards the public sector, where often it seems the media in particular like to pick on any extreme examples of ‘bloated’ civil servants, lazy lecturers and incompetent bureaucrats. Sad to see in particular when as OECD and other reports have shown the public sector in Ireland is relatively cost effective. A pity also that the stereotype still holds much sway despite recent revelations about incompetence, greed and an ethical vacuum at the heart of the much-vaunted private sector, in fact the very problems that have led to our current economic situation and where the financial wizards of yesteryear are now cap-in-hand to the state for bailouts.

    Perhaps what’s needed is a re-positioning and re0invention of the ‘public’ sector that is distinguished from the state and aligned more with the people.
    The notion of community and collegiality that supposedly underpins the idealised university, for example, perhaps is more reflected in the corporate model of a non-profit cooperative rather than either a state-buracracy or a private company?

  6. Aoife Citizen Says:

    The NYRB has an article about the effect of the crisis on US third level education:

    For our purposes here it has some interesting figures regarding the economics of top-tier private Universities in the US. Before the crisis, Harvard’s endowment was 40B USD, Harvard spends 3.5B USD a year, a third of which is drawn down from the endowment. Typical, full, fees for a top-tier US university, which will include accomadation, is 50k USD and this pays just two thirds of the cost of providing their education.

  7. […] US-style Ivy League. Earlier this year, Ferdinand von Prondzynski also speculated about this issue on his blog. Last week, things moved from speculation closer to reality: the Sunday Telegraph […]

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