The moment of Private Higher Education

As they scramble emergency measures together, the university leaders are gradually coming to the conclusion that the changes will be long-term. If only reluctantly, they are accepting that remote learning is here to stay, if only because the students' direct experience of it makes it far less intimidating.

But this is only a part of the change. The economic and political after-effects of the massively stretched state finances are bound to mean accelerating changes in the public-private balance in higher education. Coming together with the expansion of remote learning, shift to digital work and changing geopolitical alignment reconfiguring international education, this is a perfect storm moment for higher education.

As with remote learning, the balance has already been changing in public-private higher ed. In fact, this 'new normal' creates new opportunities for private higher education. With their focus on efficiencies, private Higher Ed institutions were ahead in the application of remote learning technologies, both in terms of design of the programmes and readiness to handle 24x7 student experience that remote engagement means. Moreover, particularly in the developing economies such as India and China, Private Higher Ed was focused on 'demand absorption' and were accommodating the surging demand of mass higher education. The reconfiguration of international higher education, which may mean an extra million students staying home and a surge in demand for professional and postgraduate education, creates new opportunities for private institutions in these geographies.

In developed countries, however, private education's fortunes may be affected by contraction, rather than expansion, of demand for higher education. Apart from a contraction of public funding that supported 'widening participation', the sudden and severe contraction of international student market will change the higher ed landscape. Private higher ed, despite their flexible mode of operations (more pervasive zero-hour contract culture, narrower course offerings and ability to raise money from investors) and greater readiness for  remote learning, is at a disadvantage here because of their 'demand absorption' role within these higher ed systems. Individual private higher ed institutions, which focused on 'academic prestige' segment of the market, may do better - and more and more institutions may go that direction. Roughly speaking, this is the German/ European model of Private Higher Ed as opposed to the British/ American model, presenting a different perspective for the investors in private higher education.

Finally, within the rapidly shifting context of international higher education, new opportunities of public-private partnerships may emerge. Faced with funding cuts, the public institutions may be forced to curtail their expensive transnational education projects. Even in key markets, these vanity projects often remain cash-flow negative for years (if not forever) and mainly serve as legacies of Vice-Chancellors than any other meaningful way. Private higher education, on the other hand, being nimble and responsive to local labour markets, can provide a useful complement here. Once the public universities look beyond their lazy 'internationalisation' model - selling the imperial legacies with an implicit promise of migration thrown in - collaboration with private higher ed presents the 'new normal' in international education.

Usually the public and private higher ed remain in an oppositional relationship. The academic distrust of profit motive, ranking fetish among the education leaders and comfort zone thinking among the managerial cadre ensured that public institutions never quite got what private higher education does (nor considered knowing such a thing worth their while). Such disengagement discouraged serious entrepreneurs and investors in engaging in private education, making it appear illegitimate and marginal. But if history is any guide, private higher ed - if one calls it that - usually plays a complementary role and a useful one when things change. Many big transformations in public school, business school comes to mind, where labour market led the private higher ed before public universities followed. And the oppositional relationships are harmful: The English universities stood by and let the UK government wrecked the private higher ed market in 2011/12 only to realise that it destroyed an important feeder mechanism for themselves. A disruption like the one we are living through now is a great time to rediscover the complementarity again.









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