To go big, go private

June 29, 2001

Only the market can give the UK the higher education sector it wants, says Geoffrey Alderman.

If higher education in Britain is to expand to meet national recruitment targets and training needs without adding to the nation's tax burden, the extra finance can only come from students, the private sector or both. Increasing the fee burden on students is beset by political difficulties. In any case, fees would, at best, merely support existing levels of provision. The key to expansion lies in the private sector.

At the moment, the so-called partnership between the public and private sectors in the university world is unequal and largely unconsummated. There is plenty of private involvement in the funding of research and in the granting of generous endowments to fund research centres and prestigious professorial appointments. There is also some (but not nearly enough) outsourcing of university services. But the British higher educational establishment has so far successfully resisted any involvement of the private sector in core activities - pre-eminently teaching. The UK has only one wholly privately funded conventional university.

Despite their well-founded suspicions of government funding policies and the philosophy of interference that these policies invoke, higher education practitioners in this country continue to view the private sector with a mixture of fear and ignorance.

In the US, however, privately built and run higher education institutions flourish. Contrary to myth, they do not cater simply or even mainly for the children of the economically privileged. Most of the university education provided in the US is offered by not-for-profit private institutions, some of which enjoy worldwide reputations. But for-profit establishments in America also deliver university education.

The idea that a profit-seeking corporation could or should run a quality university makes many in Britain suspicious and incredulous. In fact, an institution seeking to generate a profit is much less likely to be hamstrung by worn-out notions of what higher education is about and how it should be delivered. Poor teaching is likely to receive shorter shrift in the for-profit than the not-for-profit sector. The market will not long tolerate sub-standard educational products. Some of the best graduate professional training programmes in the US are run by for-profit universities: look at the recently established Argosy University, Chicago. Argosy, whose parent company is Nasdaq-listed, is fully accredited by the North Central Association, one of the six official regional accrediting commissions in America.

There is even a case for opening out accreditation and quality assurance to the private sector. In UK industry, private firms operating under the aegis of the United Kingdom Accreditation Service carry out most quality assurance - such as inspection for ISO 9000 registration. For-profit colleges offering two-year associates degrees in the US are quality-assured not by the six regionals but by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. The Global Alliance for Transnational Education is a private agency offering accreditation for distance and electronically mediated learning.

There is no reason why quality assurance carried out by a private corporation should be any less rigorous than that offered by a publicly funded body. It is arguable that were the Quality Assurance Agency to face competition from the private sector, its methodology would be much more user friendly and its bureaucracy much less cumbersome.

The ghosts of old Labour still haunt British academia. Profit is a dirty word. The private sector is something to be feared. The privatisation of British Rail is cited as an example not to be followed, as if horrendous railway accidents (remember Harrow, 1952?) never happened in the days of nationalisation. As a THES editorial recently pointed out, legally all universities in the UK are private institutions, but they are being required to behave as if they were publicly owned utilities. The problem is, the time when they could deliver their missions solely on the basis of public funding has run out.

As with the National Health Service, private funding will have to be solicited. Private investors seek a profit on their investment. The funds are out there. They could be harnessed to launch a new era of expansion in university provision in the UK. All that this requires is the abandonment of worn-out theologies and of the worship of gods that have failed.

Geoffrey Alderman is vice-president of Touro College, New York, and professor at Middlesex University, London.

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