Lots to gain from for-profits

March 22, 2002

Private universities will enrich the UKmarket. Let us in, says Geoffrey Alderman.

For some time many countries have operated blatantly unfair policies in order to slow down and stifle, if not to obliterate, the activities within their borders of foreign deliverers of higher education.

In Greece, the Inter-Hellenic Centre for the Recognition of Foreign Degrees Titles has made life hellish for Greek students who obtain British degrees at private institutions, in Greece, licensed by UK universities.

In Israel, the Council on Higher Education has sponsored legislation in the Knesset to make it a deliberately tedious process for foreign universities - mainly British and American - to establish themselves and deliver higher education programmes.

Elsewhere, governments deny their nationals the opportunity to study at locally based campuses of overseas universities. They may place restrictions on the recruitment of foreign teachers. They may permit overseas universities to operate within their borders, but refuse to recognise them as universities and restrict the right to confer degrees to their own universities.

The General Agreement on Trade in Services, which seeks to ensure greater freedom in the delivery of services across national borders, would abolish these monopolistic practices.

So far as higher education is concerned, it demands that member states ease restrictions on the ability of their students to study abroad and of foreign students to enter their countries to study.

Gats, under discussion at the World Trade Organisation, requires states to give equal treatment to foreign teachers, and to facilitate the recruitment at home of teachers from abroad.

The unfairness of the practices that Gats seeks to abolish is so blatant that it is difficult to imagine on what rational grounds British academia would defend them. Gats demands a level playing field for public and private higher education providers.

In the UK, the higher education funding councils contract only with "public" universities for the provision of degree courses. But a growing number of private providers might be able to demonstrate that they can provide higher education of the requisite quality but at lower cost. Why should they not be able to bid for student numbers and be funded on the same basis as any public provider?

A lot of nonsense is talked about "for-profit" higher education providers. All universities in Britain have shareholders. In most cases, there is only one shareholder, the government, which enjoys absolute control over all taxpayer-funded higher education institutions.

In the for-profit sector, universities have many shareholders to whom institutions answer. This structure widens opportunities for funding and also acts as a safeguard for the institution against dominance by just one political stakeholder.

Many governments and their academic friends who support restrictive practices against overseas providers claim that they are acting in the name of quality. This argument is spurious. I know of no evidence that the quality of education offered by the legitimate for-profits falls short of that offered by the legitimate not-for-profits.

The major American for-profit universities are quality-assured on exactly the same basis as the not-for-profits, by exactly the same official accrediting agencies.

Indeed, the for-profits have a greater incentive to provide education of high quality. If they do not, their students will walk out. No government agency will step in with taxpayers' money to rescue a sub-standard for-profit institution.

Instead of fighting the for-profits, those in charge of British higher education should welcome and make friends with them. They would learn a lot about how quality in the sector can really be delivered and guaranteed.

Geoffrey Alderman is academic dean of the American InterContinental University in London. He writes in a personal capacity.

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