'Remarkable' rise of the for-profit university

Risks made clear to Unesco as global private enrolment tops 30 per cent. Phil Baty reports

July 16, 2009

Explosive growth in private provision was highlighted at the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education in Paris last week.

Two reports submitted to the event, run by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), reveal that private providers now cater for 30 per cent of global higher education enrolment.

But the conference heard that this may present a risk to academic standards, as private providers often deliver courses cheaply and accept applicants who lack the qualifications required by traditional institutions. They may also diminish the academy's traditional role by putting commercial considerations first and reducing the influence of scholars in favour of corporate-style bosses.

The first report, Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution, says: "The growth in private higher education ... has been one of the most remarkable developments of the past several decades."

Up to 80 per cent of higher education institutions in Korea, the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia are private, and more than half the student population of Brazil, Mexico and Chile are educated by such bodies, says the report. Written by Philip Altbach, director of the Centre for International Higher Education, Boston College, it adds that "private higher education institutions, many of them for-profit ... represent the fastest-growing sector worldwide".

"In general, the private sector is 'demand-absorbing', offering access to students who might not be qualified for public institutions or who cannot be accommodated by other universities because of overcrowding ... in general, it serves a mass clientele and is not seen as prestigious," it says.

The sector "is run mostly on a business model, with power and authority concentrated in boards and chief executives. Faculty hold little authority or influence and students are seen as customers."

The report also notes a trend towards privatising public universities, saying: "Countries such as Australia and China have been explicit in asking universities to earn more of their operating expenses by generating their own revenue." This includes tuition fees and income from consultancy and industry links.

Here, there and everywhere: private growth
 0-10 (%)10-35 (%)35-60 (%)60+ (%)
Developing countriesCuba%3Cbr /%3ESouth AfricaEgypt%3Cbr /%3EKenyaIndia%3Cbr /%3EMalaysiaBrazil%3Cbr /%3EIndonesia
Developed countriesGermany%3Cbr /%3ENew ZealandHungary%3Cbr /%3EUS–Japan%3Cbr /%3ESouth Korea

"In some cases, such financial sources contribute to the commercialisation of the institution and conflict with the traditional roles of the university."

N.V. Varghese, head of governance and management in education at Unesco's International Institute for Educational Planning and co-author of the second report, A New Dynamic: Private Higher Education, said that private providers drive down costs, partly because they rely on part-time academics. He added that the sector needed regulation.

"Private-sector higher education can be a reliable partner with social responsibility if well regulated," he told a press conference at the event. "Students need to be protected."

Koichiro Matsuura, director- general of Unesco, said the rise of private provision was one of "four dynamics" causing a "veritable revolution" in higher education.

The others are: greater demand, with an extra 51 million enrolments since 2000; the impact of information technology; and globalisation.

He said: "We must strike a balance between co-operation and competition, with a view to promoting excellence."



Strong opinions were voiced by attendees:

- Governments were urged not to cut higher education spending during the recession. Juan Ramon de la Fuente, president of the International Association of Universities, said: "Higher education ... is the doorway to recovery."

- Jill Biden, wife of the US Vice-President, said: "President Obama sees higher education as critical to (his) plans to revitalise the American economy."

- The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development argued that students should contribute to costs. Angel Gurria, OECD secretary-general, said: "The best way to provide fairness is charging students a contribution ... but we need to recommend adequate financial support in loans or grants."

- Countries trying to develop world-class universities may be "chasing a myth". Jamil Salmi, the World Bank's tertiary education co-ordinator, said: "The hype surrounding (them) far exceeds their ... potential."

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