Universities and colleges are losing students to corporate training centres, an international study has found.
Further education is particularly under threat as corporations make aggressive moves into the professional short-course and English-language programme markets.
The in-depth survey of nine corporate and commercial universities, including the for-profit University of Phoenix, Sylvan Learning Company and DeVry Institute, the corporate Arthur Andersen Centre for Professional Development and Microsoft university, was commissioned by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. Its results will be considered at a conference in Australia next week.
The study was conducted alongside a British literature review and survey, which will now draw on the Australian findings to provide advice to policy-makers on how British higher education institutions should respond to the emerging global markets.
Stuart Cunningham of the Queensland University of Technology, who directed the study, warned: "Education is increasingly being corporatised and where the for-profit and corporate universities are beating traditional universities hands down is in delivering a higher level of personalised service. They can offer low class numbers and exceptional learning support services. The ivy walls of traditional academe have been replaced by the flexible low-budget office park."
He added: "In the United States, where more corporations are taking on an education role, the corporates have begun to erode student numbers in traditional universities and training courses. Community colleges are being challenged by certification programmes in corporations and for-profit organisations and these are not just educating their own employees, they are often offering their educational services to a wider cross-section of society."
Project manager Yoni Ryan added: "Community colleges were more vulnerable because they offer short courses in business, information technology and English-language courses, all of which can generate a profit and therefore are subject to challenge by for-profit organisations."
Robin Middlehurst of the University of Surrey, who leads the British side of the work, said: "Some institutions have said they have seen a loss at postgraduate and continuing professional development levels in some subjects.
"We have tried to assess whether the threats and opportunities are real. Many of the developments are highly subject specific, in areas such as management, business, healthcare and languages. I think that business and marketing courses in universities are under threat.
"If universities pay no attention to developing that side of training, they would be missing a trick. Universities need to get into consortia with each other and partners."