Global trends in private higher education

Professor N V Varghese traces the global growth of public and private higher education institutions and what it means for India

The role of the state in development became dominant in the reconstruction phase following World War II. Like the public sector in production, public universities in education became prominent in most countries. Private universities were few in number except in some countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America. In the 1980s a shift in development strategy, from state-centric to marketcentric approach, contributed to a proliferation of private higher education in several countries Contrary to the general belief, matured market economies actually relied on their public institutions to expand higher education while countries with less developed markets embraced private institutions. In other words, the developed world relied on public institutions and privatisation measures to expand higher education while developing countries experienced a very fast growth of private institutions.

The market friendly reforms in higher education can be broadly categorised into two measures: a)privatising public institutions; and b)promoting private institutions. Privatisation implies applying market principles in the operation of public institutions while their ownership and management remain with the public authorities. The cost-recovery, cost-sharing, and income-generating activities in public universities are manifestations of privatisation efforts.

Types of private institutions

The private sector in higher education can be defined as the non-government sector that does not rely on public funding for its growth and expansion. Private institutions can either be for-profit or not-for-profit. There are also instances when institutions which start as not-for-profit transform into entrepreneurial in their approach and commercial in their operations. Some for-profit institutions even float shares in the stock exchange.

The private higher education institutions (HEIs) can be classified into: a) elite; b) semi-elite; c) religious/ cultural; and d) non-elite and demand absorbing. Elite universities are mostly research universities that attract the best talent from all over the world. Many of the top ranking US institutions such as Harvard, MIT, Yale, Pennsylvania, Chicago, and Columbia are private institutions.

The semi-elite private institutions mostly offer job oriented courses in limited subjects like management, economics and accountancy. Religious institutions make up for a large share of the private higher education. While the Catholic Church is active in education in Latin America, Evangelical and Islamic faiths are common in Africa. Religious institutions levy low fees and provide financial support and thus are attractive to students.

The non-elite and demand absorbing private institutions are the largest and the fastest growing sector in higher education.Many of them are in the non-university segment and help expand access to higher education. They mostly offer short duration vocational courses. At times the private institutions are also an easy route for the entry of cross-border institutions. This is a very common trend in most countries in Latin America, CIS region, and Africa.

Some universities establish their branch campuses in foreign countries. Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, UAE (Dubai) and Qatar (Doha) are good examples of countries hosting cross border institutions. Interestingly, some of the cross border institutions are public institutions in the country of origin and operate as private institutions in the host country.

The global spread of private higher education

Among the developing countries, the East Asian region has the largest concentration of countries with the majority of students enrolled in private HEIs. Indonesia (72 per cent), Philippines (65 per cent) and Malaysia (51 per cent) are examples of countries where the majority of students are enrolled in private HEIs. Private institutions have proliferated in Latin America in the past four decades. A majority of higher education students in countries such as Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Peru, etc. Are in private institutions. In Chile and Brazil more than three-fourths of the students are enrolled in private institutions.

The proliferation of private institutions is a post- Soviet phenomenon in Central and Eastern Europe. The most privatised countries in the region are Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, and Poland. Most Arab countries opened their doors to private education in the 1990s by creating education hubs that accelerated the growth of private institutions. Private sector is the fastest growing segment of higher education in Saharan Africa. However, private enrolment still accounts for less than one-third of the total enrolments in most countries except in Gabon where it is close to half.

Private higher-ed in India

After independence, India relied on public institutions to expand higher education. The government transformed many private institutions into public institutions. Most institutions and universities established in the 1950s and 1960s were also in the public sector.

Traditionally, higher education in India consisted of public universities and private colleges. The private colleges were aided and received financial support from the government. From the 1980s privatisation efforts were initiated by introducing self financing courses and cost recovery measures in public institutions.

The 1990s witnessed the establishment and fast expansion of self-financing private institutions called capitation fee colleges. They were mostly for profit and offered courses in engineering, medicine, and management. They were located in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and the Western state of Maharashtra.

The next stage in evolution is marked by the private institutions attaining the status of deemed universities and private universities. From 2002 onwards, several state governments passed “Private Universities Acts” and established several private universities within the same state. Thus we have seen a proliferation of private universities in India in the past decade. Some of these attract students from all over India and even overseas. Some of them have even established branch campuses in countries such as UAE, Mauritius, Singapore etc.

Need for regulation

The fast expansion of for-profit private higher education, especially in the cross border segment, has led to undesirable influences, fraudulent practices and negative effects. There are many bogus institutions offering study programmes and awarding degrees. It is estimated that more than 2,500 bogus institutions (diploma mills) operate globally. The US accounts for a major share of these but regulating the sector and protecting students is an important concern worldwide.

India too has similar concerns. There are good and credible private institutions and many for-profit institutions providing low quality education. Despite the regulations by the UGC and AICTE, there are instances of undesirable practices taking place in private institutions. There is a need to look into the adequacy of the existing regulations and more importantly into the mechanisms to enforce these regulations

Professor N V Varghese is currently Director Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education (CPRHE), NUEPA, and New Delhi. Prior to joining the Centre, he was Head of Governance and Management in Education at the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), UNESCO, and Paris. He has published many books and several articles in academic journals.


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