Posted tagged ‘for-profit education’

Assessing for-profit higher education: a good business proposition?

August 7, 2011

One of the key developments over recent years in the higher education landscape has been the phenomenal growth of for-profit higher education. It is important to distinguish between private universities and for-profit institutions: private not-for-profit universities include some of the most respected names globally, such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford and the other Ivy League institutions. While for-profit institutions have not tended to appear in global rankings, they have had a big impact in the education scene more generally. Examples include the online provider University of Phoenix; the new venture announced recently in England by philosopher Anthony Grayling; and in Ireland institutions like Griffith College and the Dublin Business School.

The latter institution – the Dublin Business School – is now the largest private provider of higher education in Ireland, and has student numbers comparable with some of the universities. It is interesting for another reason: it is a subsidiary of Kaplan Inc, itself a subsidiary of the Washington Post newspaper. Kaplan, with its flagship Kaplan University, has become major source of revenue for the Washington Post, and in fact has provided by far the largest proportion of the company’s profits. With a set of values that would be seen as compatible with some traditional providers of higher education, its performance might be said to have suggested that for-profit higher education is a good business proposition. Indeed the idea that there is a sound public policy basis both in the business model and in the educational mission of private for-profit higher education has clearly been motivating the British government in its recent policy pronouncements.

If for-profit providers become major players in higher education, this could change the face of the sector, including its publicly funded parts. One possible consequence could be to remove research activity from all but a handful of institutions. But then again, that is based on the assumption that the business model is a good one; and here the jury may actually still be out. The US government has recently decided to introduce a tighter regulatory framework for such institutions, and one immediate consequence of this has been a fairly dramatic drop in enrolments. Kaplan has recently announced a major drop in profits – by 67 per cent – as a result.

Maybe the question needs to be answered now what kind of business, and then what kind of educational organisation, for-profit institutions are intending to be. Some of them have a distinctly swashbuckling approach, while others appear to attach more importance to educational and scholarly values. Some need to be tested to see whether their statements of values is reflected in pedagogical and scholarship practice.

For myself, I find it hard to believe that a profit model, in which corporate directors are bound by law to consider the financial interests of shareholders before anything else, is appropriate in higher education.  But I am interested in the discussion.

For-profit universities?

July 27, 2010

In an unusual step, the British government has awarded a private, for-profit, institution university level status with its own degree awarding powers. BPP College for Professional Studies, a private London-based college with courses mainly in business and law, will now be called BPP University College. The government may be trying this out as a test case, in anticipation of its apparent policy to have more private institutions involved in higher education.

Perhaps anticipating some criticism of this step, BPP’a Director of MBA programmes has defended the College’s approach to teaching, quality assurance and student support. She also declared herself to be happy with the description of BPP as a ‘sausage factory’. Focusing directly on the students, she argued, and with streamlined processes, BPP may be able to out-manouevre  the traditional public universities, not least because it will not be distracted by the teaching-hostile research traditions of the universities.

All of this is a major departure from normal government policies in these islands to date, in which private and for-proft institutions were given opportunities to develop their own higher education products but under the supervision or control of another degree-awarding body. But now, if we are about to see the arrival of for-profit higher education, we should be thinking through the implications.

Higher education, for profit

August 9, 2009

It is 12 years since I first had a direct encounter with a for-profit higher education institution (which must be distinguished from private but not-for-profit institutions). At the time I had just become Dean of the Faculty of Social Science at the University of Hull. The Business School, which had become part of the Faculty, had an arrangement with a private institution in London called  Greenwich College, under which the University of Hull validated the college’s degree programmes. In order to assess the value and integrity of this arrangement, I made an early visit to the college, and met its owners and some of its staff. There followed three years of productive collaboration between us, which was positive throughout. I think that, since I left Hull, the College has changed its name to Greenwich School of Management and has entered into accreditation and validation agreements with other universities.

In Ireland and the UK there are several for-profit higher education institutions, though none established as a university. All of them have accreditation relationships with either a university or a state agency; some have both. So for example, what I believe is the largest Irish institution of this kind, Griffith College, has most of its degrees accredited by a state agency, the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, but also has some accredited by a statutory UK institution, Nottingham Trent University. In this way, while the business plan and strategy for the college are in the hands of its directors and shareholders, the academic quality and integrity of its programmes is assured by external not-for-profit bodies.

The biggest accumulation of for-profit institutions is in the United States, and a good few of them are styled ‘university’. A listing of them can be seen here. They range from smaller specialised institutions, like Capella University,  to the massive online university, the University of Phoenix.  And there are others again like Harrison Middleton University, which covers a fairly wide spectrum (though only online) but uses what might be regarded as unusual sources and methodologies. A good few of  these institutions are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, which is itself a private body but recognised by the US government.

And there are also a few US institutions (and of course ones in other countries) that would be regarded as ‘diploma mills’, which hand out qualifications and awards on the basis of criteria that would not pass muster under more rigorous accreditation frameworks.

So, is for-profit higher education a legitimate part of the sector, globally? What may make some people uneasy about such institutions is that they must pursue business plans that have, as their ultimate objective, the distribution of profits to shareholders. Indeed under company law, the primary duty of directors and officers of such institutions must be to the owners. This makes accreditation particularly sensitive, because unless the integrity of such oversight is absolutely assured, and is directed solely towards quality and educational standards, there would of necessity be questions about the validity of such institutions.

On the other hand, if properly supervised and regulated there may be a case for having such institutions, as they are often able to work in niche markets or provide useful supports to the traditional higher education sector.

But it may be useful to approach this issue more fundamentally, and to have a national framework that sets out the role and purpose of for-profit higher education and also provides appropriate monitoring and control of standards. Given the globalised nature of such education, it may be wise to regulate this sector through international institutions This may be the more appropriate because, without such international oversight, it is too easy for rogue institutions to operate and to compromise quality and standards. As Ireland has recently been associated (unfairly) with such institutions that claim to be based there but which in reality operate elsewhere, it may be appropriate for it to lead an initiative in this regard.