Don’t be too quick to write off for-profit education providers
“If the government has to cut funding for social programs to provide additional support for a publicly funded institution, is tuition inexpensive and good value for money? Or has the cost been shifted?”
In the education sphere, people can be quick to criticise for-profit education – but having worked in both the public and private sectors, Michael Evans wonders if we’re asking the right questions.
A recent article posted in The PIE News reported on the results of a study carried out by the UK based Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE), which looked at for-profit degree granting institutions in six countries. I suspect most educators working in HE education in the last ten years would able to predict many of the study’s results, as well as the tenor of the post.
That there are issues in for-profit education is by now conventional wisdom. As well, certainly no one would suggest anything but the most robust policies to protect student tuition and uphold natural justice in dealings between the student and institution. However, when opinions are so ubiquitously held around other more complex issues, does it not beg the question as to whether we are fully understand the issues? I am not an apologist for private education; however, having worked in both public and for-profit education, I think the conventional thinking around these issues demonstrates the need for a different approach.
“Having worked in both public and for-profit education, I think the conventional thinking around these issues demonstrates the need for a different approach”
One of the most often repeated ideas is that the cost of private education is too high. While it is true that in the majority of jurisdictions, private tuition is significantly higher, it is not necessarily true that the cost of delivering the education is higher. Lost in the conversation over tuition is the extent to which tuition contributes to the revenue of a publicly funded institution. The contribution does vary by country but it is generally somewhere between 20 and 35 percent in advanced economies.
The revenue, though, is often not a reflection of the actual cost. This is important because some costs that go unfunded, such as retirement benefits, not only have a direct effect on the institution’s expenditures but also the government’s ability to fund the revenue gap because they, along with other services they fund, also struggle to deal with these ballooning expenses. It is a difficult problem that will necessitate some difficult choices.
Governments fund education because it is viewed as both a public good and something to which everyone has a right. Because of this, many have viewed any choice that results in decreased funding as a failure by government to fulfil its public duty. Regardless of which side you may come down on, the reality is that the financial situation of many publicly funded institutions will worsen unless changes are made.
“Regardless of which side you may come down on, the reality is that the financial situation of many publicly funded institutions will worsen unless changes are made”
One way, already in evidence, is to increase tuition fees. A recent white paper published by the UK government called for a majority of HE funding to come from tuition. If it meant current tuition doubled, could those fees be characterized as expensive? In the end, all education comes with significant cost. The more important conversation around who pays and why is more complicated.
Unless we assume government has the revenue to fully fund all services, money spent somewhere will not be available elsewhere. If the government has to cut funding for social programs to provide additional support for a publicly funded institution, is tuition inexpensive and good value for money? Or has the cost been shifted to the agency that saw the cut and the lost value in their outcomes removed from the equation?
This example is obviously an oversimplification, but at the very least it serves to demonstrate that the concerns around for-profit education often fail to consider the larger context that is required to support many of the conclusion that conventional wisdom holds as truth. Is private for-profit tuition expensive? If you lost your job at the agency from the example above that had to make the cuts or were a client no longer able to access a service, the tuition may not seem that inexpensive.