My still-in-progress book (outline here) will have a chapter on privatisation. That reminded me of some thoughts on school privatisation and for-profit education that I thought might be of interest here. The near-total failure of the for-profit education ventures that proliferated in the 1990s is striking and to some extent mysterious. In part, I suspect that the whole enterprise (at least as regards school education) was based on a misdiagnosis of the problems of the public school system, focusing on organizational factors, rather than the more intractable effects of steadily growing inequality. The limited success of the charter schools movement would point in that direction. But I argue below (from a piece I wrote for Campus Review in Australia a couple of years ago) that there are more fundamental problems with the for-profit approach. Your thoughts appreciated.
To the extent that there was any coherence to the higher education policies of the Howard government, it was derived from the idea that universities should become more like ordinary commercial businesses. Managerialism and market liberalism are at one in their rejection of notions of professionalism and the idea of autonomous academic disciplines. Both managerialists and market liberals reject as special pleading the idea that there is any fundamental difference between higher education and say, the manufacturing and marketing of soft drinks. In both cases, it is claimed the optimal policy is to design organisations that respond directly to consumer demand, and to operate such institutions using the generic management techniques applicable to corporations of all kind. They should compete on the basis of price (fees) as well as quality, and tailor their offerings to market (student) demand. The laws of economics would then ensure an efficient outcome.
This theory seemed beautiful to the ideologists of market reform, but it failed to account for an ugly fact. For-profit education has been a consistent failure in all times and places. The limited exceptions relate to areas of vocational training with little or no general educational components.
The market euphoria of the 1990s produced a large number of for-profit educational ventures, most of which quickly failed. Rather than conduct a post-mortem on the departed, it is instructive to look at some of the survivors.
Edison Schools was founded in 1992 and was widely viewed as representing the future of school education. Its plans were drawn up by a committee headed by John Chubb, the co-author of the most influential single critique of public sector education in the United States (Chubb and Moe 1990).
The period since then has been one of decline. Edison has lost numerous contracts, along with its stockmarket listing and has largely abandoned new bids to operate schools, focusing instead on a variety of peripheral educational services, such as testing and the provision of course materials. Even operating in a highly favorable political and financial climate, Edison was unable to deliver on its promise of transforming the school sector, and seems unlikely to survive as a school operator in the long run.
The University of Phoenix, founded in 1976, has been widely represented in Australia as a successful challenger to traditional universities. Such claims are exaggerated to say the least. Although the University does compete with traditional providers of undergraduate university education, its record in this area is exceptionally poor, with a graduation rate of 16 per cent (“the percentage of first-time undergraduates who obtain a degree within six years”). The performance of online programs (6 per cent) is even worse.
Alarmingly in the context of discussions of FEE-Help, the University of Phoenix has been subject to persistent accusations of rorting the government-subsidised student loan system. It was fined $10 million for illegal recruitment practices in 2004. A shareholder lawsuit based on the same issue recently led to a jury award of $280 million against the University’s parent company, Apollo Group, and further litigation under the False Claims Act is continuing.
The most prominent Australian venture into for-profit higher education is U21Global, a joint venture of the Universitas21 alliance of universities, of which the most prominent driver has been the University of Melbourne. Launched in 2001, it projected enrolments of 60 000 students, and annual revenue of $500 million by 2010. As of 2008, U21Global claims 1600 students, many undertaking short courses aimed at professionals. No financial reports appear to be publicly available, but it seems unlikely that the $US50 million invested in the venture will be recovered.
The failure of for-profit education reflects fundamental characteristics of education that make models based on competition and consumer sovereignty inappropriate as a basis for policy. Because the benefits of education are hard to assess in advance, and only realised over a number of years, short-term market incentives are ineffective or perverse. Only a long-term commitment to academic standards and professionalism can maintain the quality of education, and such a commitment cannot be driven by managerial skill or direct incentives.