Private Colleges Stall in Australia

Sector's stratospheric enrollment growth flattens, in wake of policy changes that restricted flow of public funds to students at private institutions.

December 21, 2012

Private higher education has hit the wall in Australia, with its once-meteoric growth stalling.

Student numbers increased just 0.3 per cent this year and fell 1.8 per cent in equivalent full-time terms, according to data from the federal Department of Innovation.

This compared with average annual growth of about 7 per cent over the past two years, and about 40 per cent between 2007 and 2009.

Private colleges' international enrollments, which had seen annual rises of between 25 and 30 per cent during the boom years of 2007 to 2009, fell 10 per cent this year.

Domestic growth stagnated, continuing a trend that began with the commonwealth's 2009 announcement of the demand-driven higher education system.

The new system allows public universities to enroll as many undergraduates as they can attract. But teaching funds are unavailable to most private providers or technical education providers, forcing them to rely on full-fee enrollments in an environment where publicly subsidized university places are more available than ever.

"Growth has flattened with uncapped public university places," said Adrian McComb, executive officer of the Council of Private Higher Education. "What sort of demand-driven system only supports a student attending a public university?"

McComb said that most of his members had reported increased numbers this year, but that some had expanded only marginally. The "relative handful" that enrolled international students were more concerned, he said.

The Australian Council for Private Education and Training said the higher education reforms had had little impact on its members' higher education numbers, which had remained "steady".

But ACPET said disadvantageous visa arrangements were making it harder for private colleges to recruit international students. "While we continue to see a lack of policy action we will see a decline in international students enrolling in non-university providers," said its policy manager, Ben Vivekanandan.

The report lists 88 private higher education providers, including 74 private colleges, 10 vocational training institutes, and four private universities. Five colleges no longer have any students and up to eight more don't appear to be accepting new enrollments.

Experts say it might also reflect takeovers of small private colleges by cashed-up global players.

The report shows that private higher education has become increasingly concentrated in three of the 12 broad discipline groups. Society and culture, creative arts and management and commerce collectively account for 75 per cent of private higher education, up from 68 per cent five years ago.

Health, which had a 14 per cent share in 2007, is now 7 per cent. Architecture, building, engineering and related technologies account for less than 2 per cent of private higher education load.

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