Private universities, ‘super leagues’, and such stuff

A few years ago the then Irish Minister for Education mused aloud in the course of a conversation with me about higher education funding. He wondered whether the answer to the resourcing problems of universities (which were then much less serious than they are now) could be resolved by letting them all ‘go private’. This would involve the state discontinuing the payment of annual recurrent grants or capital investments to the institutions, and directing the money instead to students who had gained a minimum number of points in their Leaving Certificate (final school examination), and letting them decide where to spend it. So the universities would still receive public money, but indirectly, and they could supplement this by setting fees that were higher than the state’s award to the students. This is of course what is known as the ‘voucher‘ system (more commonly discussed in relation to secondary education). It never went beyond the informal conversation.

But can this idea still take off? The place where it might just do so, depending on how public policy develops, is England. The latest report from there suggests that two universities may be toying with the idea of going private; though we are also told that these two are ‘specialist’ institutions and not members of the Russell Group. Speaking of the latter, there is also a prediction that a new ‘super league of strong institutions’ may be emerging in England. These will not necessarily be private, but references to the US Ivy League suggests that there may be some moves in that direction.

To be clear, I have no particular problem with private universities. Some of the American private not-for-profit institutions are the very best in the world, and apart from their undoubted educational and scholarly excellence they also have active social inclusion programmes that would put some of our universities on this side of the Atlantic to shame. But the kind of privatisation that is emerging in England, including that which is mentioned in the recent UK government White Paper, is different, not least because it is based on financial modelling rather than educational excellence.

In all of this, there is a growing debate about the ‘public good’ element of higher education, including a conference that took place yesterday organised by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). It seems to me that sometimes the debate seems to revolve around structures, whereas in reality it should be about values and strategic purpose. Without a clear sense of these, the higher education scene will look chaotic and vaguely threatening. Values  and purpose built around pedagogy and scholarship are what policy papers on reform and renewal need to project. And all too often, they don’t.

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4 Comments on “Private universities, ‘super leagues’, and such stuff”


  1. In the English case, the Government has already signalled that to draw down vouchers, providers will have to submit to conditions set by HEFCE, and HEFCE have already signalled that these conditions will be less respectful of institutional autonomy than in the past (see my post http://heplanningblog.blogspot.com/2011/06/some-controversial-wording-in-hefce.html). The English example is more of a nationalisation than a privatisation, therefore.

  2. Eddie Says:

    @Andrew Fisher: I agree with you, that it is more of nationalisation.

    I do not see many negatives in this White paper, although leftist-leaning paper and minds do not think beyond the state-funded institutions. It is surprising that except in US which has a long history of private HE institutions and other innovations in education, it is only in good old England, that all new thinking is taking place in HE sector, started with a bunch of Scottish ministers , led by first the Chancellor of Exchequer who became prime minister, and who collectively did their best to experiment in England in all areas, particularly in HE which they dared not do in their homeland. The economic destruction caused by their actions mainly in England, the power house of UK, has triggered this new thinking in HE.

    Excellence needs financial modelling, and without this Dartmouth College in US would have collapsed. When an upstart called Rose Hulman institute of Technology in Terre Haute Indiana starting as a small private institution driven by final model and hence asked a hefty tuition fees saying that it was required to create excellence, there were many distractors and even the established institutions like Purdue University was sceptical. Now look how far Rose Hulman has travelled. Its engineering degrees are considered as good as those awarded by MIT.

    I do not normally trust too much of what Guardian, the darling paper of the left says. But this time, the cooperation in RG is also what I heard from one of the Deputy VCs of RG. For a start, the 3 RG institutions in London-Imperial, UCL and Kings have cooperated to establish a centre of excellence in biomedical sciences, arguably the best in Europe. England punches above its weight in HE and the testament is found in the English RG.

    I see significant changes at the FE college and modern universities levels and blurring here of the term university. If the White paper here is put into action, I can see more local colleges in the driving seat, validating their own courses, and awarding degrees accredited by a central body. There will be sceptics about this too, but even they cannot deny that the HE landscape in the whole of UK has changed. The fall out in areas other than England cannot be under estimated. Visiting Dayton, Ohio, we hear that once the Wright brothers were told that they were mere cycle shop keepers, and they should forget about flying as machines cannot fly!


  3. I note that Ireland – despite being bankrupt – has not reinstated the tuition fees it abolished when it became clear that they were an obstacle to producing a highly educated population.


  4. “I note that Ireland – despite being bankrupt – has not reinstated the tuition fees it abolished when it became clear that they were an obstacle to producing a highly educated population.”

    Ah, to attribute such high motives to politicians. Such a positive attitude is not seen much these days. And to think that many people are suggesting that they are ignoring the recommendations of experts in order to minimise damage to their popularity.


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