Together, we're stronger

Partnerships between public and private institutions are key to weathering these uncertain times, says James Kirkbride

July 21, 2011

As debate continues over the future of higher education in the UK, we must eschew the "us and them" tendency that has characterised so much of the commentary to date on the relationship between public and private universities. It is a misguided notion, in denial of the reality that there already are many positive partnerships between these different types of institution. It denies the irrefutable fact that private providers can help traditional universities to become more dynamic, innovative and responsive to the needs of students and the employers they serve.

I make this plea for rational, reasoned debate as someone who spent all of his career in public higher education before last year joining the London School of Business and Finance, a private provider based in the UK and educating thousands of students around the world.

A key development among private providers is supporting the transformation of public universities to ensure that UK higher education remains viable - in other words, working with them to ensure their long-term sustainability. Why? Because there is a business case for doing so. Education is a public good, but it is also our business. We, and other private providers, continue to grow because we have had to, from day one.

But this does not simply mean that we offer certain "kinds" of courses. Indeed, central to our long-term development strategy is expanding beyond business and finance into new curricular areas - and we recently announced the launch of a School of Arts and a School of Fashion and Design.

But many universities are still saddled with bureaucratic operating models, working practices and infrastructure (for example, still linking certification to "time served" on campus, rather than outcomes that feasibly could be achieved in less time). Such models are not 21st-century solutions.

Alternative providers have been, and continue to be, successful at challenging traditional working practices in higher education to align with the needs of customers. The university must become a 365-day-a-year, 24/7 operation, with its people adapting accordingly. That means new programmes of study designed according to what employers and potential students need, rather than the interests of individual academics. Almost certainly, it also means being able to respond with speed and innovation to all that the latest internet technologies can offer to teaching and learning - something that today's e-generation has come to expect.

Our partnerships with public universities take a number of forms. At a basic level, we work collaboratively with the likes of the University of Bradford's School of Management, the University of Wales and Grenoble Graduate School of Business to validate our courses. But the partnership model is developing further in response to the pressures on funding that public universities face, and owing to the increasing "consumer mindset" of students - a response to the rising cost of advanced study.

We are in discussions with more than 10 universities in the UK, from top ranked to lower ranked, about initiatives that include delivering their courses, thus enabling them to reach greater numbers of students around the world. Such a model supports the expansion of higher education and also offers institutions a greater choice of venues from which to deliver programmes. So, too, does helping universities to develop online delivery, utilising their staff but with the London School of Business and Finance as the host provider - another growing area of collaborative work between public and private institutions. Such arrangements enable universities to provide more high-quality opportunities for students.

I believe public-private partnerships will be key to enabling higher education to weather these uncertain times and to be successful in the long term. This is not about aggressive takeovers, it is about collaboration and supportive partnerships, and ensuring the best of both worlds: the history and academic heritage of public universities, but also the business delivery capabilities and standards of private providers.

All of us, public and private, are in the business of educating the next generation to be able to cope with the demands of an ever-changing world.

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