Anyone interested in the global growth of private higher education (PHE) should have a closer look at the last two decades in Poland. Poland is the 6th largest higher education system in the European Union (1.9 million students), with the largest student body and highest enrollment in the private sector (633.000 students and 33.3% in 2009). After twenty years of continuous growth, the sector suffered a 10% decline in enrollments in 2009. Political intervention may be necessary to ensure its survival into the next decade and public funding may be used towards ideological goals that were never publicly debated.
In the 1990s, when the first private institutions appeared throughout Central and Eastern Europe, higher education policy was focused on educational expansion combined with full cost-recovery mechanisms. Private institutions in Poland (and elsewhere in the region) were mushrooming; there were limited quality assurance mechanisms and accreditation procedures in place at the time. Between 1990 and 2009, 330 private institutions materialized in Poland and 700 in Central and Eastern Europe. The expansion was closely linked to economic policy that encouraged external (new private providers) and internal (fee-paying part-time students in the nominally free, or tax-based, public sector) reform. Student numbers in Poland were skyrocketing. During times of educational expansion, political non-interference and relaxed academic and infrastructural requirements were key. There were ever more students in the private sector, and 30-40% of academics from the public sector held parallel employment in the private sector.
But demographics seem to be changing everything. Expansion of the private sector seems to be over. Private higher education is desperately looking for survival strategies in the face of declining demographics. Current OECD demographic projections for Poland show that in 2022 the number of students will be 55-60% of the 2008 level: the annual number of candidates for studies will drop from about 490,000 in 2008 to 260,000 in 2022.
The solution could be in high quality education that matches education and labor market needs, and achieves high social recognition. But the past policy of non-interference and loose governmental control contributed to low competitiveness vis-à-vis the public sector. Therefore the private sector is seeking political interference and state subsidies. Until now the sector was nearly fully financed by fees (in 2009 income was 93.1% from fees and only 1.8% from research).
What do you do when your public legitimacy is low, the number of your students in the next decade will plummet by 50-80 %, your only mission is teaching, and your access to public research funding is marginal? You turn to politicians and refer to ideas of “fair competition” between sectors, you try to awaken the public to the threat of the public “re-monopolization” of higher education sector, ask for the introduction of fees for full time students in the public sector or public subsidy for the private sector.
Since demographics cannot be altered, the private sector is seeking to redefine national policy. In good times, the independence of the private sector from the state was key. Diploma mills were proliferating, full-time staff were non-existent and nobody really cared much about the quality of education as long as there were students willing to pay for it. Harsh but true.
The public response to the possibility of fees in the public sector remains unequivocally negative. The political response to the subsidization of education in the private sector is still unclear but recently (February 2011), the Ministry expressed willingness to open the door to public funding to private institutions. The idea is that all full-time students in the sector— 110,000 (or 17% of the private sector enrollment)— will be subsidized. A small step with long-term consequences!
Before channeling public funding (other than competitive grants for research) to private institutions a fair assessment of twenty years of operation should be undertaken. What is the added value of its contribution – to society, the economy, to the higher education system as a whole? So far, what can be clearly shown is the denigration of the research mission of public universities. Low research intensity and low international visibility in Central Europe (in particular in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia) is directly related to redefined academic norms that allow “academic moonlighting” in the private sector. The relationships between the two sectors were fundamentally parasitic— public sector staff, public infrastructure, libraries, and sports halls— generally, keeping private costs to a minimum, keeping profits for founders and owners to a maximum.
What will probably happen next? The shrinking private sector will be aggressively turning to politicians to get increased access to state-subsidies. They will focus on getting bigger shares of public funding at the expense of public institutions (a zero-sum game) and with negative consequences for the system as a whole. Public universities may be forced to compete head-on for public funding with a for-profit, teaching-only, consumer-oriented sector on purely ideological grounds.
It is a pity Polish higher education reform (2008-2011) may mean, inter alia, the undeserved survival of institutions whose two decades of history have not been adequately evaluated or whose influence on the system (through redefined academic norms, denigration of the research mission etc.) as a whole may have been negative. Polish private sector growth, its possible decline or its survival based on increased public funding, may be showing possible future patterns of development during hard times.