Private Colleges Proliferating, Worldwide

A researcher studies the global role of private education in increasing access as demand keeps booming.
March 19, 2008

With the demand for higher education ever-growing and unmet internationally, the private sector continues to grow. A paper to be presented this week at the Comparative and International Education Society conference in New York explores global patterns in the growth of private higher education – how it increases access and who for, how private institutions expand, and what the worries are.

“Fewer and fewer countries disallow private higher education, whereas many did several decades back,” writes Daniel C. Levy, a professor and director of the Program for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany. “Furthermore, while private growth has often exploded unexpectedly and on the fringes of legislation, it has also emerged where laws have been liberalized” – in various Indian states and Chinese provinces, for instance. Whereas private education earlier developed in Latin America outside of a “state directive,” it’s increasingly common, Levy writes, for governments in Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East "to articulate a rationale for private access.” In the context of the report and international higher education, "private" can mean nonprofit, for-profit or somewhere in between.

While Japan is the only developed nation to have a majority of its enrollment concentrated in private colleges, such is the case in many developing countries in Asia and Latin America, Levy writes -- adding that there's been significant growth elsewhere, including in post-communist countries that previously had no private higher education at all. In addition to providing more seats, private education's expansion is justified in part for bringing in additional revenue to the higher education system as a whole. At a recent forum presented by Fulbright Scholars studying access and equity in higher education around the world, researchers described a need to reduce pressures on massive, often tuition-free but resource-starved public higher education systems (existing in political climates oriented around the belief that free public higher education is a public good).

While private growth sometimes is focused on creating institutions similar to public universities but for their sources of revenue, private growth also often involves differentiation, including the education of students who wouldn’t otherwise participate in higher education, Levy writes. Among them are students whose academic qualifications are sub-par by public university standards.

“It involves many students from socioeconomic backgrounds lower than that in public institutions, notwithstanding tuition charges. After all, the main obstacle to access for those from poor backgrounds is not higher education tuition but rather factors that limit their chances to perform well through schooling and thus to be qualified for selective public higher education.” Private education can also increase access for particular groups. In Kenya, for instance, where women don’t perform as well on science-based, public university entry exams, private universities can provide alternatives.

While growing primarily as freestanding institutions, private colleges do sometimes expand through linking or affiliating with public institutions. "The other thing is that it’s fascinating how in some parts of Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, public universities, which are tough to get into, have opened private parallel programs. So, 'I’m not good enough to get into the public and go for free but I am good enough maybe to get into a parallel program,'" Levy said in an interview.

On the one hand the programs expand access to students who wouldn’t land a highly subsidized or even tuition-free public university spot. But they also raise questions about equity, with fee-paying, students in the private, parallel program sometimes studying right alongside the subsidized students -- who generally come to the public system with better preparation and from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, he said.

Such issues are complicated, and the concerns remain. Among these is a distrust of profit motives. More common than for-profit private colleges, Levy writes, are “for-profits legally cloaked as nonprofits.”

Questions about quality – and whether private colleges are achieving efficiencies or operating at low levels of quality – persist, he writes. And of course there are philosophical issues at the core.

“You can always make a counter-case. One counter-case would be do we need this much access? Do we need this many people in higher education? A second could be, if we do than why not pay for it on the public side?” Levy said in a phone interview Tuesday.

“Theoretically you could do it all through public education and try to save on cost by forcing people to pay, particularly if you establish good loan mechanisms. But that isn’t really the reality in most places. The stark reality in most places I believe is there’s huge demand, and the public sectors operate mostly on the basis of public money, and there isn’t perceived to be enough public money to make great increased access possible through the public sector alone.”

“That doesn’t mean that most people are tickled pink by all this. I think there are a lot of reservations.”


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