Private higher education has mushroomed in recent years to take 30 per cent of all global enrolments, and it has grown for good reason. As Philip G. Altbach, Monan professor of higher education and director of the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College, says in our cover story, it is "demand-absorbing". Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that the number of students wanting tertiary education has increased from 29 million to 153 million in the past 35 years, and as state funding has come under pressure, private providers have stepped in to fill the gap.
Most of these private institutions are not prestigious (although some are selective) and serve a mass audience of students for whom there are not enough places at public institutions, or who do not have the qualifications to attend them. They offer access to those who might otherwise not go to university and mostly without any cost to the state, which is why David Willetts, the Shadow Universities Secretary, is so keen on them. There is a heavy focus on teaching (which is why students like them) and most do little or no research (which is why many academics don't).
As private universities make inroads into the UK sector, public universities will be forced to up their game. Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group, welcomes the challenge, believing it to be "good for students and a good way to enhance quality and standards".
This may be the case for the non-recruiting institutions, which can take such things in their stride. But when some 75 per cent of private-sector providers charge the standard state-tuition fee, according to the British Accreditation Council, for students the choice between receiving a few hours of teaching per week at a lowly public institution or oodles of it at a private one may seem a bit of a no-brainer.
This will be further compounded if, as many predict, the tuition-fee cap is lifted, forcing many universities to refocus their offerings quite dramatically to compete, and students get access to the powerful and detailed information about the employment prospects their courses deliver that Willetts and the Tories especially want them to have.
When it comes to the curriculum, private for-profit institutions concentrate their efforts on low-cost, high-paying courses such as law and accountancy. They are no soft touch; they don't want to take on the expensive hard sciences.
That, of course, is the problem. Private bodies, especially the for-profits, can cherry-pick subjects and are less burdened by public-sector regulation and the demands of research. The poor old definitely-not-for-profits are being run more and more like businesses, but are hamstrung by having to carry out a public duty. It's like telling the BBC that it must produce lots of costly costume dramas and public-service programmes, yet still making it compete with Sky and its lucrative football deals.
Competition is all well and good, but it has to be on a level playing field. It is not a case of public equals good, private bad (and, let's remember, some of the best US universities are private not-for-profits), but if we are going to make all universities compete, let us at least ensure that everyone is subject to the same rules.