Posted tagged ‘for-profit universities’

Higher education – is competition always the answer?

May 16, 2016

The United Kingdom government, acting in this case for England only (as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own systems), has just issued its White Paper on higher education, setting out its policy agenda. At the heart of this agenda is a simple diagnosis of the sector’s problems: that there is ‘insufficient competition and a lack of informed choice.’

To correct this, the British government is planning a new system that will make it easier for what it calls ‘challenger institutions’ – i.e. private sector for-profit colleges – to enter the market. They will have the opportunity to secure degree-awarding powers and to call themselves ‘universities’. The anticipated result of this (and related) reforms is summarised as follows:

‘With greater diversity in the sector, more high quality entrants, and increased choice for students, our primary goal is to raise the overall level of quality.’

The tone of the whole White Paper reinforces this point: that the existing system is a cartel, that new providers should be allowed to enter, that the strategic development of higher education should follow students’ ‘informed choices’, that the tendency to under-value teaching (when set against research) needs to stop. Student choices, according to the White Paper, are made effective through inter-institutional competition, and better information for student applicants. Meanwhile the pursuit of global recognition for ‘elite’ universities should prompt the further concentration of research in a smaller set of institutions.

Most stakeholders have reacted negatively or cautiously to the proposals in the White Paper. However, if they are implemented a major part of the higher education framework in the UK and beyond will start to look very different from what it once was. This involves not just organisational but intellectual and pedagogical  aspects, elements that have not received half as much attention as the debate around the institutional landscape.

As I have suggested before in this blog, we need to get a lucid and agreed statement on what higher eduction is actually about. Otherwise university reform is just a process of bureaucratic and institutional adjustment, focused strongly on inputs rather than results. There is an important place for competition in higher education, but primarily this should be a competition of ideas rather than of institutions.

Some of the objectives set out in the White Paper are reasonable, and they may spark an interesting debate in the global higher education community. But whether the English university system will become a better one as a result remains to be seen.

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.

Higher education, higher quality, for profit? Or what?

June 6, 2011

A for-profit higher education institution would not be an unheard of innovation: there are lots of them all over the world. Some are quite small and, in the overall scheme of things, insignificant. Some are much larger, but do not attract attention as high value institutions that change the academic landscape. Some – and here one could mention the University of Phoenix with its pioneering online presence – do not pursue intellectual discovery or innovative scholarship, but do change the game in terms of the business model or teaching methodology. Many are respected educational institutions, but some are essentially bogus and academically suspect. Some are diploma mills. Some have aspirations to a higher standing, but the jury is out on whether they can achieve this. But until today almost all, no matter where in the world they are located, would have been considered as lesser institutions in terms of intellectual or scholarly standing; though again some have entered into linkages with universities that might give them an important status via that association.

So how should we assess the latest for-profit venture announced this week? London and Oxford Philosophy professor Anthony Grayling has announced the establishment of a new venture, to be called the New College of the Humanities, based in London. The media coverage has focused on two aspects of this venture: the £18,000 tuition fees it intends to charge, and the procession of famous academics who will provide some of the teaching – including Richard Dawkins (to provide some smart salon street cred), David Cannadine, Ronald Dworkin and others. The college will offer degree programmes, accredited by the University of London (with an add-on diploma offered by the college itself), in subjects like philosophy, economics, history and psychology. It will be run on a for-profit basis.

So what is this? An elite academic fashion parade? A movement to save the humanities, at least for the upper middle classes? A vanity project by some over-hyped academics (it’s not in Bloomsbury for nothing)? Or a genuine educational innovation? The announcement has certainly been able to ring the media register, and in many ways that is not a bad thing, as it keeps the higher education debate in focus.

It might be right to suspend judgement on this for the moment, but I am uneasy. This is not because I don’t see any room for private for-profit education, but because I don’t think this is how the intellectual high ground should be occupied. It seems inevitable that in some countries the funding model must adapt, but even then the purpose of universities should be to add to the fund of knowledge and discovery, not to add to the funds of shareholders. There is an attempt here to unite the aspirations; but in the end I don’t think that works. Or maybe I think it shouldn’t work. At any rate, I hope the announcement sparks an intelligent debate in the academic community.

The rise of for profit higher education?

November 29, 2010

As we have noted here recently, the British Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, appears to feel that more private for-profit institutions should be encouraged to play a role in English higher education. For those who may feel, like the Minister, that for-profit colleges will apply a market discipline and bring greater efficiency and choice, it is worth noting recent information coming from America that only 22 per cent of new entrants to such colleges actually graduate within six years. While some of the reasons for this may be related to the backgrounds of the students taken in, it is still an unacceptable performance and should give some considerable cause for concern.

Of course there are some high quality private institutions of this kind, including one or two in Ireland, but across the board there must always be questions about the idea of a ‘university’ that has to organise itself in a way that will secure significant profits and thus dividends for shareholders. I am not against participation in higher education by for-profits, but I would strongly suggest that this is not the answer to almost any issue that is currently of concern to the sector; and furthermore if new private institutions are pushed into the market too aggressively there could be serious problems in the medium term if some of them run into quality issues.

A better model might be for universities to enter into partnerships with some for-profit institutions that can provide services in an appropriately monitored environment.