Monday, 26 July 2010

Private sector provision of higher education

Today it was announced, with the full approval of the higher education minister, David Willetts, that the BPP College of Professional Studies is being given the designation 'university college' with immediate effect. BPP was founded in 1976, and it already has degree awarding powers, the only private sector company in the UK enjoying this privilege. The new announcement gives BPP College university status, though BPP will remain a private sector business and it will receive no public funding (and it will be free to set its own fees). Since last year, BPP has been part of the same international group to which the well known University of Phoenix belongs. It offers a range of management and professional programmes - some leading to degrees, some to diplomas and certificates - and delivers them very flexibly through a large number of associated study centres, both in the UK and in many other countries.

How should one react to such private sector provision in the higher education field?

Some of the initial reaction is, I think, rather predictable and a little disappointing. For a start, the UCU (University and College Union) took the view that private universities would not be in students' interests; and argued further that HE institutions should be 'publicly funded and democratically accountable'. The union also asserted that allowing private sector providers to call themselves universities would be bad for the reputation of British universities, and would also pose a threat to academic freedom and standards. The government, in contrast, sees the latest move as a way of offering additional university places without further straining public budgets; and also envisages that private providers might prove to be more innovative in their teaching and course delivery than traditional universities.

So the battle lines are drawn up! Now let me comment briefly on some of these alleged drawbacks and advantages of private provision.

The Union, I'm afraid, appears to be stuck in a past of plentiful public funding and also comes over as being quite patronising towards students. For surely, if BPP and similar institutions are really not in students' interests, one would have thought that most students would be smart enough to see this for themselves and not sign up. In that case, BPP attracts no students, makes no money, and folds - end of story. So why on earth should we even care whether private universities are good or bad for students? Simply let students make their choices - aided by whatever information can be provided about their courses, study facilities and costs - and then leave it to competition and market forces to determine which can be viable.

And what, I wonder, does the Union have in mind when it talks of democratic accountability, standards and academic freedom? Universities are there to deliver high quality teaching and to undertake research, and neither function has anything to do with democratic accountability. If we are accountable to anyone it is to our students first and foremost; then to the funders of our research; and last to the funding council through which our public money is channelled. Somehow, all this has to be reconciled with vital principles of academic freedom that underpin everything we do. But it's not obvious to me that a private provider of higher education would wish to challenge or undermine such core principles.

As for standards, no doubt the Union is thinking of the existing complex and over-bureaucratic mechanisms set up to monitor and judge teaching and research in public universities. But the lack of such mechanisms in the private sector does not mean that no one cares about quality there, it merely means that quality is being assured in a different way, through a mix of internal procedures, competition, and reputation. Why should we imagine, or assume, that a private sector institution would necessarily produce academic programmes of lower quality than those found in public institutions? I see no reason why this should be so.

Last, there is the government's interesting remark about innovation. My own experience in universities suggests that our public institutions can be impressively innovative in the design and delivery of teaching programmes, but efforts to change often meet with a good deal of resistance - passive and otherwise - and significant change can be quite slow. So if it does turn out that private providers really are nimbler than we are, quicker to adapt their provision to newly evolving market needs, opportunities and conditions, then we could soon be facing some very tough new competition. That's not, of course, in any sense a bad thing, but it could make our lives rather more uncomfortable than we are used to. Let's see how well we can adapt.

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