Are private universities ‘a huge threat to academic standards’?

Problems with privates

According to a piece in the Telegraph private universities represent ‘a huge threat to academic standards’. This follows the award of the University College title to BPP College and the line comes from UCU:

More than nine in ten professors believe encouraging more private companies to become universities would be a mistake, the University and College Union (UCU) said. In a survey of 504 professors, the union found that 96.2 per cent opposed plans to make it easier for private companies to become universities. A call by David Willetts, the Universities Minister, to increase the role of the private sector in higher education represents “a huge threat to academic freedom and standards,” it said.

The UCU expressed concerns that private companies are not subjected to the same scrutiny as universities, and have no “tradition of academic freedom.”

An entirely contrary view is offered by via Geoffrey Alderman in the Guardian. Alderman argues that private universities are no threat to academic standards:

All of us who want the maintenance of appropriate academic standards and a robust student learning experience in British higher education must welcome the news that the BPP College of Professional Studies has been designated as a “university college” – the first wholly privately funded university institution to be established in the UK since the establishment of Buckingham University College – now the University of Buckingham – in 1976.

Given that Alderman is employed by the University of Buckingham his views are perhaps unsurprising. But what is the issue here? Are private universities really a threat to academic standards? The question is, of course, a ludicrous one. The arrival of new privately funded institutions will not, in itself, have any bearing on the academic standards set at existing institutions. Nor will standards set by such private universities necessarily be lower than those of other universities, just different. What will be interesting to see though is the broader impact private providers will have on publicly funded universities. The government clearly believes that the introduction of this kind of competition for students into the HE marketplace will force everyone to raise their game and lead to better quality of provision at lower cost. This is theoretically possible but what about reality?

Buckingham and BPP do seem able successfully to recruit students (although given the huge demand for limited university places this is not a surprise) and the former has enjoyed some success in national league tables but the standing of their graduates in the jobs market will be a key determinant of their success in the longer term. So, private universities may not have a direct impact on academic standards but if they succeed in recruiting good staff, well-qualified students and produce highly employable graduates then they will begin to offer real competition for publicly funded institutions. Will everyone else then begin to copy the private providers? We’ll see.

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1 thought on “Are private universities ‘a huge threat to academic standards’?

  1. I agree with you – private universities are not a threat (disclaimer: I work for a private not-for-profit university). However, private “for profit” universities may be another story. Check out the recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education on some of the less than best practices of some for-profit schools in the United States:
    http://chronicle.com/article/Lawmakers-Focus-Ire-on/123771/
    According to the story, NONE of the 15 schools are completely clean, although only 4 had fraudulent business practices.

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