Privatising higher education
From time to time it has been suggested by critics of recent reforms in higher education that university heads want to ‘privatise’ their institutions. Mostly this charge has been without any real foundation. That, however, does not mean that privatisation cannot happen. Indeed, a report in yesterday’s Times newspaper suggests it may become a reality in England much sooner than anyone might have anticipated.
According to the report, the British government is considering handing over ‘failing universities’ in England to private companies to run them. And if you were wondering what that means, the article in the Times suggests that BPP, the private higher education provider, may already have been lined up to undertake this role. The company’s chief executive, Carl Lygo, knows exactly how he would tackle the job, according to the Times:
‘Mr Lygo said that the first step for anyone taking over the management of a university would be to cut or merge functions already covered by its head office, such as finance team, marketing or public relations. He said: “I have looked through some of the university cost base and I think we could probably save them, just on procurement savings alone, 25 per cent of their cost base, which is obviously very interesting to government”.’
If this is really being contemplated, it would be a much more radical change in English higher education than anything that has ever been done before. Its significance would not lie in how much a private company could generate in savings or efficiencies, but rather in the overall understanding of how higher education works and what it is supposed to achieve. However good BPP may be at what it does, it is a training institution, not a university. This would not be a minor change or a new efficiency drive, it would represent a different understanding of the nature and purpose of a university. Even if such a change is right, it requires a much more thorough discussion before it could or should be contemplated.
Interesting times, south of the border. Or maybe scary.