Warwick’s VC predicts growing privatisation of universities

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Warwick’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Nigel Thrift has predicted a growing role for the private sector in UK higher education. Professor Thrift urged fellow university heads to confront the issue now, arguing that the “mix of public and private is not going to go away”.

In a keynote speech to a conference held on campus on 30 March by the Association of University Administrators, he placed this trend within a global context and outlined the future options and implications for British universities over the next decade.

He claimed the two key factors driving the growth of the private sector worldwide are: global education demand outstripping supply; and students increasingly seeking value for money by choosing courses targeted at future careers. He said social demand for “different and better” higher education among students has grown.

Professor Thrift said universities have become increasingly commercialised over recent years with little visible change. Warwick, for example, contains 17 private companies and receives only 23% of its income from Government funding.

The issue of the private sector has become increasingly relevant because of the recession. Public funding has already become noticeably constrained and this is likely to continue for a long time. Governments will feel unable to supply funds for the increasing demand for higher education.

The Vice-Chancellor listed a number of possibilities he sees as likely in the UK. He said he believes the UK higher education sector will remain mainly public, but funded by more private money, with perhaps significant parts going private, although there remain many other possibilities.

These include a diversification of the UK higher education sector involving cooperation and collaboration between public and private interests, potentially providing mutual benefits in the field of research.

There is a chance British public universities could be bought by for-profit providers or venture capitalists, as has happened in the US. Or the opposite: public institutions purchasing for-profit providers, as has happened in China and Australia.

He said the Government could also begin to provide higher education vouchers for students to use at private colleges, or completely remove the limits to private institutions, as proposed by David Willetts, Conservative Shadow Minister for Universities and Skills.

In relation to these potentially enormous changes, Professor Thrift claimed the sector was currently in “quite a bizarre situation” of not knowing what it wanted, despite having been repeatedly asked by the Government.

The Vice-Chancellor proposed cooperation between university heads to avoid a “free-for-all” and to develop a coherent plan of action which could be presented to the Government within six months.

The imminent funding crisis for universities and the possibility of a new incoming Government made swift action vital. He stressed: “We need to think about this now, right now, before the tidal wave hits.”

He called on universities to make the case for the advantages they offer students. Their role is shaping inquisitive minds and educating for life, not just for a job. He said the student experience and research were two huge assets for traditional universities, and that these should be emphasised.

The research role of universities, he argued, was more important than ever before as they are becoming the only places where research on many important global issues is taking place.

The Vice-Chancellor gave an impassioned defence of traditional universities, calling them “the lifeboats for the kind of knowledge we need” in order to meet the challenges of the modern world.

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