There is “limited evidence” that the global growth in private higher education has improved the quality of provision or contributed to innovation, according to a report from the Centre for Global Higher Education, which calls for better regulation of the private sector.
The study, which highlights some of the potential dangers posed by the liberalisation of the higher education market, found that the quality of provision at private providers is often low compared with public institutions.
It also revealed that while lower entry requirements at many private providers reduce the main barrier to higher education, this does not necessarily lead to widening participation, as tuition fees are generally higher than in the public sector.
The Higher Education and Research Bill proposes to make it quicker and easier, in England, for “high-quality new innovative and specialist institutions” to set up and award degrees.
A government briefing document published alongside the Queen's Speech in May said that this change would “promote innovation and competition and foster better quality provision”.
The CGHE report, titled The Entry and Experience of Private Providers of Higher Education in Six Countries, was based on desk research conducted by Stephen Hunt, research associate at University College London's Institute of Education; Claire Callender, professor of higher education policy at Birkbeck, University of London and chair of higher education studies at UCL's IoE; and Gareth Parry, director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Sheffield. The paper focuses on private higher education in the US, Australia, Germany, Poland, Japan and Chile.
The study says that the reliance on tuition fees as a key source of income, particularly among for-profit institutions, makes private providers – and their students – “vulnerable to the consequences of fluctuating demand”, referencing several institutions that have been forced to close for this reason.
It also underlines the need for a proper accreditation system for private universities and argues that such institutions should provide assurance that they represent value for money to students and the public, have a strong financial foundation and will not fail should the demands of the market change.
Professor Callender said that the report provides some “important lessons” for the UK’s higher education system.
“There is limited evidence from the countries we studied that increasing higher education competition and expanding the private sector has improved the quality of provision, contributed to innovation, or driven down prices in either the public or private sectors,” she said.
She added that there is a need for “much tighter regulations in the UK for all private providers, and not just those receiving government funding”.
The report also says that for-profit universities in the US, and to a lesser extent in Australia, have used “aggressive marketing and recruitment techniques to attract students who qualify for federal and state financial aid but who often have little prospect of successfully completing their course”.