Posted tagged ‘privatisation’

Privatising higher education

April 26, 2011

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.

The private option?

June 23, 2010

Recently I got a letter accusing me of arguing for the ‘privatisation’ of Irish higher education. Well, I have also received letters suggesting that ‘you have hidden your shady Hungarian past’ (seriously, I got that in a letter – I was rather sorry it was untrue, it made me sound much more interesting), and that I had falsified my real age (my correspondent suggested I was really 76). So I don’t take such correspondence excessively seriously.

However, if his green pen is still working, my anonymous correspondent concerned about privatisation might want to direct his fire at Paul Marshall, Executive Director of the 1994 Group of universities in England. According to this report on the BBC, Mr Marshall has suggested that a growth in the private university sector could bring ‘access to a form of higher education for all, literally at the end of every street.’ I generally advise anyone who is tempted to use the world ‘literally’ to take a deep breath and then stay silent for a moment – and I’m sure Mr Marshall will on balance agree that not every street (literally) in the UK will have a university on it, no matter what happens.

But I digress;  he is raising an interesting issue. In a nutshell, he appears to be arguing that the British university sector will in the current budgetary climate lack the capacity to admit all those who want to go to university, and that private universities (yet to be formed) might provide the answer. And he suggests that private providers will increase competition and thus quality, and would be a good thing.

I have not seen the text of Mr Marshall’s speech, and so I cannot be absolutely sure what he was suggesting. But if the report is a fair summary, the analysis needs to be rather more nuanced. A reference to a ‘private’ university could mean different things. It could – and more usually would, particularly in the United States – be a reference to not-for-profit universities that are however outside of direct government or state control, getting a substantial amount of their income from full-cost tuition fees; or it could be a reference to ‘for-profit’ institutions such as the University of Phoenix, which is really less a university as we would understand it and more a corporate elearning organisation. But these two categories are fundamentally different.

Ireland does have ‘for-profit’ higher education providers, but on the whole these are on the margins of the system, offering a limited range of programmes which in turn are externally accredited. We also have the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), which offers degree programmes not supported by public money-funded block grants. But it does not operate as a for-profit organisation.

It is on the whole my view that for-profit institutions should be allowed to operate, though they may need some monitoring to ensure quality. But these institutions are not some sort of answer  to current problems. This is so, in my view, partly because higher education should be informed by a public service frame of reference. On the other hand, we may at some point also need to look at a revised model of the relationship between higher education and the state, and this could include at least some universities opting for private not-for-profit status. Right now we need to become more imaginative in responding to current circumstances.