Private Higher Ed: The hidden sector

I switched my career to what I thought was Higher Ed (in reality, private training) about thirteen years ago and never stopped being fascinated about it. My fascination, however, is always about how little Higher Education sector knows about itself and wants to learn.

A lot has changed in the last thirteen years though. About when I was getting started, a number of studies started coming out. This was also the time when private investor attention turned to Higher Ed and many 'ventures' were launched. Impacted by the global recession, public universities became more entrepreneurial. India started its rapid - and unplanned - expansion of the sector. New frontiers, Africa mainly, were opened and private Higher Ed moved in. Just predating it was the rapid expansion of International Education, which was driven by the growth of private sector. Soon, private Higher Ed, with its teaching focused, no-frills education, was out in the open. 

Yet, when I defended my thesis on the sector several years later, my interview went on for 90 minutes because my examiners did not know about the sector and wanted to know more. As late as 2017, I remember advising a senior leader from a UK university against moving to private Higher Ed and was amazed to see how little the person understood about the sector. Indeed, there are people in every university who build these partnerships - franchisees in another name - and they are very aware what goes on there. But most of the others are largely ignorant of the phenomena altogether.

There is a certain naivete here, one that I was guilty of when I got started: Whatever gives a degree is Higher Ed! And, then there is this career-destroying one that sits on top of this: That one can bring change in the sector and make it resemble the public education ideal. I am guilty as charged - this second part was the story of my life for the last thirteen years! It is only recently I have given up on chasing the ghost.

The fundamental reason why private Higher Ed can't be changed is because it is the change itself. Private Higher Ed, like many other things in our society, is created by the financialisation of the sector. This has to be understood in its own terms. This is not about free versus expensive education: Higher Education was always expensive, in terms of money and time (which is money in a different form). But financialisation is when the complete process translates into a financial process - student funding becomes loans, degrees get attached to visas and better-paying jobs, the worth of the activity itself gets measured in money etc. And, this is not about public-vs-private distinction: It is the public sector which changed and the private sector reflects the change!

Of course, people don't talk about financialisation, at least not much. There is plenty of academic research on financialisation of other sectors but not much on that of Higher Ed, and on the rise of private Higher Education. It seems that the starting point of most researchers is to accept this as a given - society is changing and Higher Ed must change too! The university leaders, measured by their ability to keep the institutions solvent, easily give in the Faustian bargain: They see the partnerships as a useful way of getting money for their research and even when they worry about the exposure, they worry about their 'brand' and reputation, and at best, compliance! The partnerships professionals get an accelarated career, often built on the back of one country or another: The scene is almost like the old days of multinationals, when one struck gold in a territory or another! 

Right now, though, private Higher Ed is no longer hiding. People who looked askance at the mention of private Higher Ed has fallen in love with the start-up and valuation stories. Venture capital - and the media attention it brings - has made talking about the sector respectable. Education technology, which most scholars did not understand or did not approve of (until Covid, when they discovered Zoom), has added to this. Some parts of older universities have benefitted more from this change than the others: Business schools and technology schools have grown in funding and significance. And, this ebbs and flows, of course: The large international market openings, like India right now, can shift the fashion overnight and design departments in various universities may thrive! In more than one way, this is springtime in private Higher Ed!

But at the same time, one can see the crisis in the horizon. The 'international' part of this is somewhat threatened, as the global flow of students are changing. Many host societies are under pressure - too many immigrants are fuelling nativist parties! Private Higher Education, in aggregate, costs more and results in lower entry level salaries (if we exclude top business schools from our analysis), often delivering poor value for money! It also defines education narrowly and this makes its graduates less amenable to workplace changes. Overall, the growth of Private Higher Ed, which is the only part of the Higher Education sector which is growing, has an adverse effect on the host society and its education system. That most research deals with Higher Education sector as a whole and almost nothing exists to compare the parameters such as the cost of education, or graduate outcomes, between public and private (and indeed, within private sector, between corporatised entities and mom-and-pop shops), one doesn't know the true impact of the privatisation.

As I mentioned, my decade's worth experience was truly eye-opening. I no longer see whatever gives a degree as a Higher Education institution. I have understood that there is no point trying to change any single private entity, as it is part of a much more complex ecosystem, which is driven by government policy and the overall Higher Education system. It is a manifestation of globalisation in a way, and as with globalisation, many societies are pushing back against it. As this is tied to globalisation, it is subject to the forces that are shaping globalisation per se - the decoupling of China, the decline of dollar, the rising cost of money and inflation, the global demographic changes - and a crisis of sorts is looming. Let's say - there will now be changes! Personally, I have given up the hope that changes are possible at the institutional level and any single body, however large, can change itself; but I think the forces outside will soon shake up the sector as a whole. Further, this will also possibly transform Higher Ed as a whole, because the public sector universities are so closely involved.






 

 








 





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