Leader: Provider, where is thy sting?
Private growth in the sector is a tender subject, but the reality is more complex than ideologues on both sides would have it
It was recently suggested that Times Higher Education has a "bee in its bonnet" about private providers. As appealing as the idea of THE having a bonnet may be, the automatic reaction to such an accusation is indignation. But on reflection, it did give pause for thought.
Has the focus on private providers by THE and the sector at large in the past few years been over the top? Or has the undoubted growth in interest been commensurate with the increasing significance of private players under a Conservative-led coalition government?
As is now typical, there are several articles on private provision in this week's issue. One is a report of a debate hosted at an old Soho watering hole by THE and The New York Review of Books, at which A.C. Grayling presented the case for his £18,000-a-year New College of the Humanities. The participants included some of Grayling's famous supporters but also staunch critics of the privatisation of higher education.
What was striking was the ideological position from which most on both sides argued, particularly on the issue of who would be able to afford the fees being charged, a fact that made the debate seem very polarised indeed.
But is this also the reality on campuses in Exeter, Preston or Stirling? Perhaps not. One participant confided after the debate that they had been disheartened by the entrenched ideological positions that others had maintained. In fact, they said, many people did not see Grayling's institution as particularly paradigm-shifting, still less a major threat to others. Asked for his views, the vice-chancellor of a particularly ambitious London university also dismissed talk of a threat: the college simply wasn't on his radar.
If this suggests a softening of attitudes to private providers, then it may be down to such factors as growing familiarity, pragmatism in light of the changed (and changing) regulatory environment and the dropping of the higher education bill, which has preserved the universities' relative stranglehold on degree-awarding powers. In similar vein, a report by PA Consulting Group has found that the proportion of vice-chancellors who think private providers will pose "significant competition" is falling.
But this must be considered alongside the wider question of what is public and what is private. Universities are already "private providers" in a legal sense, and PA Consulting Group says that four in 10 of them now have "substantial" arrangements with private companies, such as firms that provide foundation-year education.
Meanwhile, it has been argued that if private players are being allowed access to state-subsidised student loans, they receive public money just like the mainstream university up the street - the only difference is how much. Viewed in this light, the public-private divide seems less of a chasm and more of a continuum.
In reality, the threat posed to traditional institutions and to the wider public good by private providers will be best judged on a case-by-case basis. But as far as bees in bonnets are concerned, there may need to be greater clarity about the differences between institutions that operate on a charitable basis and those that are for-profit (the focus of such scandal in the US).
Perhaps we should all distinguish between the buzzing of the relatively benign bee and that of the more dangerous hornet.