Private universities ‘only way to meet demand’ in emerging economies

Allowing private sector to flourish is best route to vastly increase access to ‘good, not great’ higher education, BRICS and Emerging Economies Universities Summit hears

December 4, 2015
Money being put into for-profit university (illustration)

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Private, for-profit universities are the only way to meet the huge demand for “good, not great” higher education in emerging economies, it has been argued.

Speaking at the Times Higher Education BRICS and Emerging Economies Universities Summit in Delhi, Karan Khemka, a partner at the consultancy Parthenon, also argued that universities could tap into the huge sums set aside for overseas aid to bolster their research capacity.

“The idea that there’s not enough funding for universities in a world where there is quite frankly excess capital…is more a lack of imagination…than anything else,” he told delegates.

Currently, rules prevent universities in India from being run for a profit. But Mr Khemka still said that the number of private universities in northern India had nearly doubled in the past five years and this market was growing at more than 25 per cent a year. “You show an investor a market like this and you will attract so much capital it will be hard to keep it away,” he said.

As for how universities in the developing world could access money for research, Mr Khemka noted that overseas aid had grown from $14 billion (£9.25 billion) in 1999 to $65 billion in 2013. “Why can’t our universities come up with projects and programmes” that would allow them to win some of the money, he asked.

Unprecedented numbers of young Indians wanted access to higher education, he said. “The private sector is the solution to this. Will there be a bad apple in the cart? There will. But the market will sort itself out, as it has for telecoms, as it has for healthcare.”

But he was challenged by Raj Kumar, vice-chancellor of O.P. Jindal Global University, who said that he was “fundamentally opposed” to the idea of for-profit education.

“I don’t know of a single, great institution of global excellence anywhere in the developed world or the developing world which is actually a for-profit university,” he said.

“After the sub-prime crisis, after the economic crisis, we can’t seriously be saying that markets will correct themselves,” he continued. “The market doesn’t correct itself, you need huge intervention."

Earlier in his presentation, Mr Khemka had argued that the largest segment of the UK university system was comprised of “applied universities”, which were “not very selective” and spent little of their money on research. A similarly large group of institutions existed in the US, he said.

“In other words, when we think of the world’s best higher education systems…most universities are teaching universities, they are not [engaging in] fundamental research, they are there to put people into good jobs,” he argued.

In response to Professor Kumar, he said that “for-profit universities, and most private universities…will never be great research universities. But they shouldn’t, because the largest component of any developed higher education system are teaching universities.”

“Most of the system has to be good, not great,” he added.

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