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Higher Education, From Public Service To Consumer Product

In countries that once invested in free public university systems, higher education is increasingly becoming an investment option turned over to the private sector. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Learning time in Buenos Aires
Learning time in Buenos Aires
Ana María Mass
-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES — In many if not most countries, it can no longer be assumed that the state will provide its population with higher education. Private university and university-level coursework has been expanding worldwide for decades, and its growth can be measured with the number of students enrolled in private higher education institutions — a third of all such students globally.

Private universities constitute a clear majority of higher-education institutions in some countries. In the United States and Latin America, private education is already well established. In Dubai and Bulgaria, it's a recent phenomenon. In Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines, 70% of university students are in private institutions, while it is now more than half in Brazil, Colombia and Chile.

In the United States, Mexico, Brazil and Chile, there has also been an increase in the number of universities conceived as profit-making enterprises. In 2010, these universities represented 10% of the student population, and the biggest company among these was the Apollo Education Group, owner of the University of Phoenix. Their objectives are sometimes questioned, as they admit students of lesser academic merit who are more likely to abandon their courses and rely on financing through loans or federal grants.
Argentina doesn't allow profit-making universities. There are universities that are managed in the same manner that companies are, but their legal standing is "non-profit." The terminology and reality can be so fuzzy that it has given rise to terms like pseudo-profitable and quasi-profit organizations.
The fastest growing sector in the world is "demand responsive," which usually refers to institutions that accept people with low-level qualifications. Such institutions abound in China, India, Russia and Mexico, and provide vocational training opportunities and access to work for people less likely or able to access a bona fide university education.
Another form of privatizing higher education is to charge fees for courses in public universities, as we see in Argentina with long-distance education, post-graduate courses and continuing education.
A growth engine
Where countries have loan or grant systems, like the United States and Chile, institutions are prompted into competing for a piece of the students' purchasing power. There is also the long-established practice of private institutions receiving public subsidies.
Higher education is now seen as one of the engines of economic growth. Demographics and demand are pressuring countries to increase the offer of education "products," while figuring out how to pay for them. The traditional social functions of higher education as a public good, education for citizenship and economic development must today face the concept of education as a private good. People and academic institutions are now expected to shoulder part of the financial burden, hence institutions' need to diversify revenue sources.
The privatization of higher education is a reality, and perhaps an irreversible one. Depending on the country, the best students are divided between public and private universities, as are lecturers and full professors. Independent rankings are in turn becoming the means of gauging performance and results, placing new pressures on both private and public institutions. In terms of increasing both quality and accessibility, the best-case scenario would see the private sector becoming a sort of partner to the state in providing young people with higher education.
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Iranian woman wearing a headscarf

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