Public-private partnerships and all that
“We are in the midst of a widespread exercise in innovation, adaptability, and resilience”
Dr William Lawton, outgoing Director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE), shares some insights on public-private partnerships (PPPs) in higher education in the wake of a successful event on the topic.
‘If PPPs are the answer, what was the question?’ That was one question tackled at the Observatory’s latest conference, ‘The future of public-private partnerships in higher education’, held on 3-4 December at Regent’s University London (incidentally a private but not-for-profit institution). Presentations can be seen here.
Why now? Part of the context is the view, among the new for-profit players, that public-private partnerships in higher education are under-analysed and under-reported. Other parts of the backdrop are international competition, the demand for education by older students, skills deficits in many countries, and funding cuts – all of which render unsurprising the increasing role of private actors in higher education. What may be more surprising is the diversity and sophistication of approaches that now join ‘traditional’ universities and the for-profits.
“International competition, the demand for education by older students, skills deficits and funding cuts all render unsurprising the increasing role of private actors in higher education”
We were reminded a number of times, including by Doug Becker, head of Laureate Education worldwide, that public-private partnerships have long been part of higher education: from catering to computing to payrolls to residences to security services. In this sense, the Observatory and i-graduate – and our parent company Tribal Group – are well-integrated parts of this PPP service-provision scene.
Professor Susan Robertson from Bristol reminded us of the pedigree of public-private partnerships in the 1990s: as a less-in-your-face privatisation after the first (Thatcherite) wave of 1980s privatisation. PPPs, under the label of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), emerged as a way of funding and running public infrastructure projects with private capital. The stated aim was to increase accountability and inject private-sector efficiencies into public spending; the unstated one was to lessen government debt in the public accounts by shifting the debt to future generations. PFI was started by the UK Conservatives but warmly embraced by New Labour. PFI projects emerged in all areas of public service (health, schools, transport, even defence) in the UK, Australia and such jurisdictions of fiscal propriety as Spain, Greece and Ireland.
The brief recap of PFI is worth recounting in order to stress that the business models described by Doug Becker and the other for-profits represented in the conference programme (Kaplan, INTO, Study Group, Navitas and Pearson) were as distant as one can imagine from a political accounting wheeze to make government inefficiency look less inefficient. One intent of the meeting was to evaluate the differences in approach between these companies, but all of their approaches are premised on understanding the cultural gaps between universities and their private partners. They do recognise both the ‘peril and potential’ for traditional universities and actively accommodate the means by which universities must protect their reputations (by controlling student intake, for example).
“These experiments have no time or space for a clumsy dichotomy of ‘public good, private bad’ – or the other way round”
Such awareness and self-awareness was characterised by Bob Hogg from Warwick as ‘institutional emotional intelligence’. Paul Greatrix from Nottingham described how their branch-campus partnerships had infused the university with a profoundly more entrepreneurial culture. What emerged at the conference is that we are in the midst of a widespread exercise in innovation, adaptability, and resilience. These experiments have no time or space for a clumsy dichotomy of ‘public good, private bad’ – or the other way round.
Former Vice-Chancellor Professor Roger King, member of the Higher Education Commission (which in November published its report on the financial sustainability of higher education in England), in fact argued that the public-private dichotomy is meaningless in any case, because the legal status of universities is either that of a person (pre-1992) or ‘quasi-private’ (post-1992). His take on regulation and the appropriateness of ‘risk-based quality assurance’ included the provocative assertion that the new private providers are subject to closer monitoring because of an assumption, at the agencies, that they are less familiar with the regulations and therefore a higher risk. A safer assumption would be that the for-profits know their regulatory environments inside-out. An article based on his presentation is here.
In the UK, knowing your regulatory environment means having to learn new tricks every month. During the conference, the Home Office distributed further proposed changes to a Tier 4 guidance for sponsors document published just the week before. It is not clear precisely what motivated this latest broadside from Croydon but base politics is never far away and it is always just possible that shady practices and non-compliant operators are working to undermine civilisation as we know it. The proposed restrictions on operating pathways arrangements and ‘satellite campuses’ (eg. London branches of UK universities) were so radical as to be interpreted by universities and their private partners as a bewildering attempt to close down these parts of the sector. The dismay was such that it is unlikely to proceed, but Merry Christmas anyway and expect redrafted guidance in January.
“It is always possible that shady practices and non-compliant operators are working to undermine civilisation as we know it”
One delegate claimed that the conference was an important milestone in discussing PPP models and applications, and it was in keeping with the Observatory’s tradition of matching intellectual nourishment and analysis with the how-to approach of practitioners.
The conference closed with a wrap-up of risks and rewards, during which the idea of risk-based quality assurance was challenged, and universities reaffirmed a positive view of the for-profits. The withdrawal of the state from higher education funding in a number of countries does suggest that its ideal as a public good is being challenged. But the PPP responses to a culture of scarcity in fact demonstrate a determination to keep that ideal alive.
Read more coverage of the event on The PIE News.