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.

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20 Comments on “Privatising higher education”

  1. Fred Says:

    BPP may be a teaching institution that has no real experience of what a university is and how to run it but I am afraid that there are few people who do now what a university is and are interested on how to properly run it. The point has been lost.
    I think rather scary times….

  2. anna notaro Says:

    *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.*
    Interesting sentence, rethorically speaking, (the charge is deemed without foundation while the possibility of its reality is acknowledged) however this is not the time any longer for subtle rethoric, but for everyone, university leaders in primis, to take a stance. Interestingly, the post concludes in the same indefinite vein *Even if such a change is right, it requires a much more thorough discussion before it could or should be contemplated.* While the through discussion goes on the university, south of the border is burning and the fire is going to spread north as well, only a question of time…still this might just be another charge without foundation 😦

    • Anna, my opening comment was about the past. There have been good, bad and indifferent university heads, but on a proper understanding of ‘privatisation’, I don’t think any of them have ever favoured it. However, what is currently being suggested in England *is* privatisation. And I am amazed that it is not creating more noise in response.

      • anna notaro Says:

        then here is a mission for any university leader north of the border (the situation in England in nost salvageable): to come up with a university model (let’s call it a ‘celtic university’) that while is keen to establish a relationship with the private sector is not willing to compromise on academic freedom and integrity..

  3. […] “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 …” (more) […]

  4. Mary B Says:

    ‘However good BPP may be at what it does, it is a training institution, not a university’. See previous posts passim – some non-privatised unis are already behaving like this, and some students will be happy with it, as a training institution will be more efficient at giving students skills to get jobs in ‘the real world’. So they believe they are paying to secure a job which attracts a higher salary (they aren’t, but that’s another issue). Privatising universities may be said to be a legitimate step in the commodification of higher education, but some of us who still believe that it’s more than ‘jobs in the real world’ might prefer to take our expertise elsewhere…

    • Wendy Says:

      as a training institution will be more efficient at giving students skills to get jobs in ‘the real world’

      But will they? Look at the private career colleges in Canada as an example. These offer career training in many different fields, and they sell their programs as a ‘fast-track’ route to a qualification – in fields such as IT, office administration, social services, police training, medical lab assistant and many others. Most employers don’t recognise these certifications as carrying any merit in the labour market, and few people graduating from these colleges end up working in the fields where they have paid upwards of $10,000 to receive training.

      Do private training institutions in the UK have a better reputation?

  5. The inability to imagine how a private system might provide high quality education might suggest that levels of education among teaching staff at our existing institutions is a little less than it should be. Then again it might just be self protection.

    • Brian, I think I’d be interested in having you draw that out a little. Do you believe that for-profi higher education could be better quality than provided under the existing model?

  6. Ian Johnson Says:

    A quick look at BPP’s web site shows that they don’t stint on PR. Press releases are coming out more than daily, and every minor media interview is follwed up as enthusiastically as the tabloids are following the royal weding. If Universities Scotland wants to secure the future of the universities, it needs to make sure that the public facing PR effort of the Scottish Universities is more active, more visible, and more effective.

  7. jfryar Says:

    If you take a look across the educational landscape of Irish universities, you’ll find many courses that are specifically designed to fill niche markets. Biomedical Diagnostics, Hospitality Business Management, etc. It’s quite clear that such degrees are specifically tailored to pump graduates directly into companies. I’d argue that our universities already have so many degrees that are vocational in scope, that allowing private companies to provide such degrees isn’t really much of a leap.

    Different universities for different people. If you want a vocational education, go to the private corporately run ones. If you want a broader, more academic education, go to the public universities that offer that. There’s probably enough room for both. After all, Ireland set up a system of NIHE’s, Universities, and ITs for exactly that reason.

    How up for this the public are is questionable. When TV channels started replacing real meteorologists with slick attractive presenters the Irish and British public lashed out. When academic members of staff lost their jobs in London-based universities the students began protesting. Yes, the public will whinge about the cost. But the public is also largely against privatisation of public services in England.

    • There is still a major difference between vocational university degrees (about half of the degree programmes or more of every university, including Iv y League ones, Oxbridge and TCD are that, such as law, accounting, architecture, medicine etc etc) and training programmes. In this particular venture that line would be blurred, and that has major implications.

      • jfryar Says:

        I agree with the argument, but my point is how much blurring actually occurs. On the left you have say Oxford and Cambridge, offering vocational and ‘academic’ degrees as they do now. On the right you have ‘University of BPP’ offering ‘training courses’. Students pick and choose the one they want. Does the presence of one invalidate the other? Does the presence of one necessarily have implications for the other? Can we have multiple definitions of what a university is? And how would such ‘training courses’ be accredited? If not by academics then by whom?

        • I agree that one does not invalidate the other as they sit alongside each other. But that is not the proposal here: rather, one is to take over (some of) the other. That’s a completely different proposition, and does have significant implications. It also raises questions of what we mean when we call something a ‘university’. Maybe we don’t mean anything at all, except an institution where people are taught?

  8. […] Read the original here: Privatising higher education « University Blog […]

  9. Allan Jepson Says:

    I agree with the all the arguments generally speaking and some very interesting points are being raised. Personally since the completion of my Doctorate all I have is pressure from ‘managers’ rather than advice from ‘leaders’ on how important it is to fill my timetable with 550 hours of teaching. Therefore where BPP will gain an advantage is within newer Universities which do not produce research / knowledge. It is clear that the government is looking to squeeze these institutions by concentrating on STEM and taking away teaching monies from other ‘fields’ of study such as business & management. So if like me your working in a new University scary times indeed.

  10. kevin denny Says:

    At the risk of pedantry, “privatisation” here means “for profit” I think. Many of the best universities in the world are private but not-for-profit and Oxford & Cambridge colleges are, in a sense, private.
    The distinction is important because it raises the question of whether motivation (i.e. who “owns” an organisation”) is important?
    The extensive experience of public enterprise (i.e. state run companies) as well as centrally planned economies after the 2nd World War strongly suggests: No. Regulation is the key and not ownership. We have plenty of experience in Ireland of crappy public sector organisations to back this up.
    Left to their own devices, organisations will pursue their own agendas. You have to be incredibly naive to think that just because an organization is in the public sector that the people who manage it will serve the public disinterestedly.
    In practical terms, where does this leave us? The UK has about 80 or 90 universities. Some of them are clearly not very good. Would privatisation not be at least worth trying?

    • Kevin, you are absolutely right. My assessment is about the impact of for-profit education rather than whether it is strictly in the public sector.

      • kevin denny Says:

        My guess is that for-profit education would probably not deliver good traditional (i.e research and teaching) universities but for teaching-only institutions they could be quite efficient.

        • Actually Kevin, I’m not sure. Even teaching-only universities tend to provide a different pedagogical experience from for-profits. I am not *necessarily* saying worse, just different.

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