Too Big to Marginalize: Higher Education’s Private Sector

Private institutions enroll one in three of the world’s higher education students—by 2010 private enrollment reached 57 million.

April 15, 2018

Private institutions enroll one in three of the world’s higher education students. By 2010 private enrollment reached 57 million, today surely pushing toward 70 million. With release of the first-ever comprehensive global private-public dataset on higher education, interested parties can now see not only the overall worldwide private reality but also its regional and country configurations; they can furthermore see numerous details about the dataset and its organization (http://www.prophe.org/en/global-data/). 

There’s no reasonable way to minimize the revealed private presence.

Global private size does not rest on any one aberrant region or set of aberrant countries. Whereas the US was historically dominant in absolute and proportional size, today its enrollment share is slightly under the global average. India is the new global giant in sheer size but the global average doesn’t shrink much if India is omitted. Ten countries account for nearly 70% of global private enrollment but fewer than 10 of nearly 200 countries have no private enrollment. Asia has easily the largest private enrollment, Latin America the highest private share of total enrollment, but each of the world’s seven regions has more than one in ten of its students in private institutions. Nor can the private boom be seen as just a passing phase, however much it’s been promoted by neoliberalism. Private growth has been remarkable since the middle of the last century and in the new century shows few signs of slowing growth in absolute terms, even as the private share no longer soars.

Nor is private higher education the result of any one cause, historical or contemporary. It is not the product of any one actor or group, nor does it primarily serve any one actor or group. In fact, private higher education is not any one thing. It is usually non-elite but often elite, usually and increasingly secular but often religious, usually nonprofit in legal form but often and increasingly for-profit, usually domestic but increasingly international, usually housed in freestanding institutions but often and increasingly in chains of institutions. Private activity concentrates disproportionally in certain fields of study but is increasingly widespread in its offerings.

Private higher education is thus too large, too ubiquitous, too permanent, and too intertwined into various parts of society to minimize, to treat as if it were peripheral. It is not the more important sector, arguably not in any country in the world, even when it’s the larger sector. But when it comes to higher education, being second is being large and important.

Inevitably, the private rise has brought increased government attention. This has often been only belated attention as, especially in most of Latin America, Europe, Africa, and the US, private growth was not usually the result chiefly of government planning. But as the private sector has become large, directly involving more and more of the population, it has come increasingly onto the public policy agenda. Even were government reticent to deal directly with the private sector, it must recognize that “its” public sector is importantly affected by the private sector.

Nonetheless, this bog is not a clarion call for hugely expanded government attention. Surely there are many settings requiring increased public regulation against abuse, arguably places where public regulation could increasingly promote private higher education in the public interest. But skeptics can well highlight the often dubious links between what real governments do and what serves the true interests of the citizenry; they can emphasize how private growth and activity has been vigorous without following government plans, achieving at least some noteworthy successes. We’re here into classic debates about the appropriate degree and shape of government regulation.

What is not disputable, however, is that there should be more recognition of the private sector and its enormous size, reach, and importance. The blog does call for that, for increased study and dissemination of findings about the private reality. Private higher education does not merit as much attention as public higher education, but the attention gap must diminish significantly. The world’s higher education cannot be understood without understanding its private sector. Private higher education has become too large in reality to marginalize in thought.



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