An increasing number of private institutions, including five universities, are offering higher education courses in Australia.
A survey commissioned by the federal education department has found the number of private providers is nearing 100. Business programmes make up more than 40 per cent of the courses on offer. Religious degree, diploma and graduate certificate courses comprise a further 25 per cent of the total.
The survey was conducted by Louise Watson, a researcher at the University of Canberra. Dr Watson, director of Canberra's lifelong learning network, said the private provider market was distinguished by a high degree of diversity: professional and industrial associations had 11 offshoots offering higher education courses, theological colleges 16 and "niche market operators" some 54.
The last include colleges of alternative health therapies, institutions offering visual and performing arts courses and business colleges.
Dr Watson said public universities also catered to niche markets, although they tended to enter the field after private providers had established them. Some public institutions now offered courses in chiropractic medicine and acupuncture, which were originally begun by private providers.
Overall, the private sector enrols more than 30,000 students in higher education programmes, although most students are part-time and undertaking postgraduate courses. Few foreign students are enrolled.
Private enrolments make up only a fraction of the 700,000 students undertaking courses in Australia's 38 public universities -with 100,000 of these, mostly foreigners, paying the full cost of their tuition.
Dr Watson said the various private providers linked to the professional and industrial associations enrolled some 11,000 students, theological colleges 5,300 and niche market operators 6,700.